by Barbara Spindel
Too little academic work has focused on right-wing women. Until recently, studies of women's political activism tended to center upon feminist activists, while studies of right-wing political or religious movements tended to center upon the activities of men. Three new books are situated at the intersection of such scholarship: two, Brenda Brasher's Godly Women and Elinor Burkett's The Right Women, seek to understand women's allegiance to conservative religious and political movements, respectively. The third, Sylvia Bashevkin's Women on the Defensive, focuses on the effects of conservative rule on the women's movements in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada during the 1980s.
In the past, it was de rigueur for scholars who acknowledged the existence of right-of-center women to attribute their activism to false consciousness, in effect suggesting that women who championed reactionary, antifeminist, or even conservative agendas must be the pawns of men. Witness Andrea Dworkin's argument in Right-wing Women: "The Right in the United States today is a social and political movement controlled almost totally by men but built largely on the fear and ignorance of women. . . . [S]elf-sacrificing women are perfect foot soldiers who obey orders, no matter how criminal those orders are."1
Both Brasher and Burkett reject this tradition. Brenda Brasher, a religion professor whose ethnographic study focuses on the women members of two fundamentalist Christian congregations in southern California, writes against scholarship that depicts fundamentalist women as "essentially dedicated to furthering the goals and ideas of fundamentalist men, and thus of ancillary importance to the fundamentalist movement as a whole" (p.3). Her extensive observations and interviews convince her that while fundamentalist Christianity is generally believed to be organized around women's disempowerment, women are, in fact, empowered by their participation in fundamentalist congregations. To support this argument, Brasher describes in great detail the "female enclaves," women-only activities and events through which fundamentalist women, "faced with the ubiquitous male dominance of overall congregational life,...establish a parallel symbolic world in which they can be fully contributing participants" (p.27). Through the networks created in the female enclaves, fundamentalist women become "empowered," a term Brasher uses again and again. They exercise their "power" in a number of ways. For instance, while women are forbidden from preaching to the overall congregation, they preach to each other often quite movingly, by Brasher's account in women's ministries. Women also exercise power as an "invisible organizational principle" (p.87): after a married male pastor began an affair with a female congregant whom he had been counseling, women congregants worked behind the scenes to ensure that in the future only women would counsel women (the male senior pastor who approved the change, however, was officially credited with making the decision). In some ways, these women's power is a matter of perspective. For instance, they accept that wives should be submissive to their husbands, but "declare that this submission is done out of obedience to God not men" (p.6).
The thorny issue, one Brasher does not sufficiently examine, is that the "empowerment" she describes (as in the examples above) does not challenge the profoundly gendered doctrines and structure of fundamentalism. While she acknowledges that the female enclaves both undermine and support fundamentalist patriarchalism (p.112), she emphasizes women's empowerment perhaps a result of her desire to problematize the traditional explanatory models of her discipline. Brasher, herself a liberal Christian and a "committed feminist," does a good job of shedding light on the reasons women join and remain in fundamentalist congregations; I wished, however, for a deeper analysis of what it means both for feminism's commitment to gender equity and for the women themselves that women feel empowered by a restrictive religion that consigns them to subordinate, submissive roles.
Like Brasher, Elinor Burkett rejects the false consciousness explanation of conservative women, but much more egregiously than Brasher she overcompensates in the other direction. In The Right Women, a book for general readers, the journalist and former professor describes her two-year journey across the United States interviewing all sorts of right-wing women to determine why they have rejected feminism. The result is 258 pages that are long on gushing (conservative women are independent! they're spunky! they're sexy!) and painfully short on analysis.
Burkett's overall argument is that conservative women are strong, nonconformist, and empowered. A self-described feminist, Burkett concludes that the prominence of conservative women is proof of the victory of feminism: "American women aren't talking about feminism. They aren't writing about it, theorizing about it or marching for it. They're just doing it. Women's rejection of feminism, the official movement, should not be a cause for dismay. It should be a cause for celebration" (p.258). In seeing the activism of conservative women as a triumph for feminism, simply because it is performed by spunky women, Burkett empties the term feminism of all meaning. In each chapter, Burkett focuses on a different type of conservative: young women ("the babes"), religious women ("the holy"), militia women ("the outlaws"), intellectual women ( the "ideopreneurs"), gun-toting women ("pistol-packing mamas"), etc. While Burkett at times claims to oppose and even to abhor her subjects' politics, she is obviously captivated by the women she encounters. Burkett gushes over the women's good looks and fashion sense: Andrea has "frosted hair, hot pink fingernails and a miniskirt" (p.169). Whitney, "wearing a miniskirt and a gold necklace . . . taps her black patent leather open-toed heels" (p.230). April lectures teens in a "black mohair sweater and dark pinstriped trousers. Her lipstick and nail polish were dark" (p.33). She makes little effort to refute either their gross caricatures of feminism (she engages in a few herself, referring to feminists as "male-bashers" [p.93]) or their political views. For instance, she does not respond critically to the young Washington, D.C. activist who claims that she is not a feminist because she loves her ovaries (p.32) or to the Black gubernatorial candidate who champions the death sentence for the rape of virgins (p.63). As a result, the book is a platform for rather than an analysis of right-wing women s views.
In her chapter on conservative congresswomen, Burkett quotes Idaho's Helen Chenoweth as saying, "The way I figure it, if you want to be liberated, why don't you just be liberated? Why do you have to talk about it all the time?" (p.181). Such a sentiment gets to the heart of Burkett's apparent attraction to the conservatives she meets. Describing conservative women business owners, Burkett admiringly declares, "While feminist leaders were busy complaining and litigating about hiring discrimination, glass ceilings and flextime, millions of practical, no-nonsense American women like Pat went out and dealt with these problems on their own" (p.127). In Burkett's equation, conservative women act, while feminists merely grumble and whine. Burkett evidently does not see any connection between feminist activism and the increased opportunities for women, feminist or not, to start their own businesses or serve in Congress. Nor does she consider the significance of other factors - class, race, sexuality - that might limit individual women's access to the resources necessary to participate in economic and political life.
While many of Burkett's subjects, in their individualist zeal, refuse to acknowledge the existence of "women's issues," Sylvia Bashevkin, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, well understands that changes in the labor force, marriage and divorce patterns, and government spending have disproportionately affected women, leaving them more economically vulnerable than men. Her Women on the Defensive compares the effects of the Thatcher, Reagan, and Mulroney governments - which together "effected a major realignment of political ideas" (p.6) - on the women's movements of Great Britain, the U.S., and Canada. Previous comparative scholarship suggests that the U.S. movement should have been the best insulated because of the "diffuse interests in a U.S. congressional environment." Yet Bashevkin challenges the consensus in her field by arguing that the American women's movement, in fact, suffered the most decisive policy reversal of the three cases; she cites as examples the intensified threats to abortion access, the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the undermining of affirmative action (p.49). In all three countries, the impact of conservative government seems to be lasting: the "return of the liberals" brought three leaders, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Jean Chretien, who have "all created new paths to the right of their partisan roots" (p.233).
Besides providing thorough and readable descriptions of the political climates of the three countries before, during, and after the conservative governments were in place, Bashevkin includes accounts by feminist activists who tell of the losses and limited gains that occurred during the 1980s. During a time when their governments were prescribing "lower taxes, reduced government spending, deregulation, and an emphasis on individual, voluntary effort" to resolve their nations' problems (p.4), the women Bashevkin interviewed describe feeling isolated and on the defensive. The fifteen one- to two-page narratives appear in their own chapter, set off from Bashevkin's text in bold print. While they are interesting to read, the format does not facilitate much engagement with or analysis of the activists accounts.
Bashevkin complicates the notion of "women" as a homogeneous group suffering under conservative rule by pointing out that some women, especially those with access to advanced education, benefited from conservative policies during the 1980s; in Britain in particular, women supported the Tories in great numbers. Bashevkin sees women's support of conservatism as ironic, but such backing reminds us that identity formation is a complex process: women do not live solely as gendered subjects, but experience their gender simultaneously with other factors - class, race, religion, sexuality, and age. Also important is recognizing that conservative political and religious movements offer rewards to women, both material (prestigious positions in political organizations) and psychological (the security of firm gender roles, or the confidence of believing that equal opportunity has been achieved). The future efficacy of the feminist movement will depend, in part, on understanding how a variety of factors can contribute to the formation of feminist consciousness or militate against it. Brasher's and Bashevkin's studies suggest some answers; Burkett's book, describing such a wide range of conservative women, suggests that there is much more work to be done.
1. Andrea Dworkin, Right-wing Women (New York: Perigree, 1983).
[Barbara Spindel is working on her Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is also affiliated with the University's Center for Advanced Feminist Studies.]
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