Not-so-New Right Wing Women

Not-so-New Right Wing Women

by Abby Scher

The doctor’s wife was an educated woman, she’d raised two children, and been active in her community through the Junior League. But it was President Obama who made her take to the barricades of the Tea Party movement. “It’s liberty or socialism,” she said. “Any time you are taking from one group of people and giving to another, you are denying the rights of a group. Taking from the wealthy: you can’t continue to take their money, give it to people who are less productive.” In the run-up to this year’s election, women who hold such views are often described as a new phenomenon. But a look at history shows this isn’t so, and a critical review of some classic feminist analysis can help counter such thinking.

©Leslie Fry

The doctor’s wife said all this with the passion of someone stumbling on a new insight. But I’d heard her argument before. While researching anticommunist women’s groups of the McCarthy Era, I encountered Vivien Kellems, a small businesswoman and National Woman’s Party member who, in the 1940s made headlines as a tax rebel when she refused to withhold her employees’ taxes from their paychecks. Kellems then used her celebrity status to help launch an anticommunist group called the Minute Women.

She was a right-wing woman, and she was a feminist. And she wasn’t the only one.

The National Woman’s Party was launched by the Alice Paul wing of the suffrage movement in 1916 to build women’s legal equality and power. It turned into a stronghold of what we would call “equal rights” feminists, many of them professionals, many of them well off, and some of whom, like today’s Tea Partiers, opposed the New Deal and the progressive income tax as state socialism.

Even though their story can be found in Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor’s 1987 book about the National Woman’s Party, Survival in the Doldrums, today’s feminists have a hard time admitting right-wing feminists can exist, or ever have existed. Feminist pundits challenged the very idea after Sarah Palin called for an “emerging, conservative, feminist identity” in her May 2010 speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, which funds anti-abortion candidates.

“Our prominent woman sisterhood is telling these young women that they are strong enough to deal with this. They can give their child life, in addition to pursuing career and education and avocations. Society wants to tell these young women otherwise. These [liberal] feminist groups want to tell these women that, ‘No, you’re not capable of doing both.’ “

How can you be a champion of women’s equality in the workplace and government, even the family, and also embrace the notion of the free market and “small government”? But that is exactly what Christina Hoff Sommers, the philosopher attached to the American Enterprise Institute, and Michelle Bernard, director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, do when they identify as feminists. They receive prominence because they work for outfits that get backing from the likes of the Koch brothers (credited with funding the Tea Party) and other right-wing billionaires to promote the ideology of the “free market” and challenge established feminists as “statists.” Still, they are part of a tiny but surprisingly durable lineage within feminism.

Andrea Dworkin’s Analysis

That lineage would be nonsensical to Andrea Dworkin, whose book Right-Wing Women caused a stir when it came out in 1983, and lives on in the footnotes of activist-oriented scholars who soon picked apart its cartoonish generalizations. I remember tossing the book aside for its relentless polemic when I tried reading it as a young feminist in 1984. Her single-minded focus on sex and violence and her neglect of class and money drove me to distraction.

Can you champion
women’s equality
and the free market?

“Men hate intelligence in women.”

“At the heart of the female condition is pornography.”

“A woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.”

Dworkin was a “materialist” who thought women submit to patriarchy out of fear of blows from men, their class enemy:

It is true that women as a class adhere rather strictly to the traditions and values of their social context, whatever the character of that context…women as a class are the dulled conformists, the orthodox believers.

So, to her, women “as a class” tend to be conservative, cowed by patriarchy. They suffer a form of false consciousness. This is the generalization about all women with which she opened her book.

She went on to say to say women submit as part of an exchange. In return for submission, the Right promises that patriarchy will offer shelter, safety and a slew of “metaphysical and material promises.” That’s how she explained the tightly coiffed women who joined Phyllis Schlafly in campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 80s. They are the women most dependent on men, those who believed the ERA would cause them to lose what little security they had in marriage. She noticed that all the women on the Right opposing the ERA identified as Christian, but in her certainty she only skimmed the surface of their distinct form of right-wing Christianity. This is a part of Dworkin’s analysis that later writers filled out and validated.

Updating Dworkin

The sociologist Rebecca Klatch identified the split between the socially conservative women embedded in conservative Christianity who filled the ranks of the movement opposing the ERA, and the libertarian free marketers like Kellems and Sommers, who were ignored by Dworkin. The libertarians often agreed with the feminists about discrimination, but saw the solution not in collective action but individual efforts.

©Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

In a 1988 journal article, Klatch sympathetically analyzed the socially conservative women as having an “underlying fear … of a total masculinization of the world,” they wanted the family to take precedence over their own individual interest and men to take responsibility. She, like Dworkin, talked about an “exchange,” but not to avoid violence. “Far from suffering from false consciousness, in fact social conservative women are well aware of their interests and act to defend their status as women.” But unlike feminists who sought women’s security through economic independence, they did it by “binding men to a stable family unit” and ensuring women’s rights in marriage.

Reconfigured Right-wing Ideology

Today, however, you have a new configuration among right-wing women: They are Christian conservatives and free marketers at the same time. The doctor’s wife who I quoted at the beginning of this article is one, as are Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Nevadan politician Sharron Angle, and Palin. It’s clear: 2010 is not the same as 1983.

Led by the Heritage Foundation, and later the conservative Christian Family Research Council, the free market Right and the Christian Right have been making ideology together since the 1990s to heal the breech in the Republican coalition.

The conservative Christian free marketeers are diverse on gender issues, some embracing a belief that they should submit to their husbands; many others departing from this view of “traditional” womanhood to support more egalitarian relationships. Some, as Barbara Brasher discovered in the 1990s, carve out a space of relative freedom within their church’s women’s networks. Others, as Kathryn Joyce has found, embrace a neo-Calvinist “Biblical Womanhood” movement pressuring conservative Christian women to “submit” to their husbands in all things, including their voting choices.

While battles over abortion remain vivid, the lines dividing right from left in other aspects of the gender wars blurred without anyone noticing. You see it in the Tea Party, too. In focusing on economics and Islam, some regional Tea Parties created a shared space where prochoice and anti-abortion women, gay friendly folks and homophobes work together. This shuffling in the GOP coalition and toning down the gender talk may have succeeded in wooing more white women to vote GOP.

At the same time, support for far right positions — dismantling of Social Security, the progressive income tax and other hard-won policies, and the demonization of progressives, Muslims and gays as traitors who threaten the Republic– has traveled from obscure groups in the Idaho wilderness into the mainstream. This was made possible by TV pundits, Republican leaders and libertarian donors who embraced the politics of fear to achieve their goals of removing any government restrictions on business or the wealthy. These forces came close, but ultimately failed to elect Sharron Angle, a conservative Christian free marketer who opposes both working moms and government social programs as “idolatry,” as Nevada senator. Happily for them, if not for us, Michele Bachmann is already in the House, eager to carry their agenda forward with her new Tea Party peers. It’s time to start thinking tactics! We are in a for a rough ride.

Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist who has researched women’s movements during McCarthyism.

Also see Women’s Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see ‘Abortion’ as Right’s Multipurpose Scare Word by Amanda Marcotte in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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