This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right
Emily S. Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
In This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Emily S. Johnson complicates the role of women in the New Right and their relationship to feminism. While women such as Anita Bryant, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Marabel Morgan ostensibly opposed feminism, their work in organizing women for conservative causes and vocal political roles challenged conservative Christian teachings that called on women to be submissive and silent. At the same time, these women emphasized submission to their husbands and tried to steer away from explicit political action. Later, women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman entered the political realm and ran for office on platforms emphasizing conservative positions on gender and family issues. While many of these women drew feminists’ ire, their participation in political movements undermined conservative Christian doctrine and created a “conservative feminism” that challenges both conventional definitions of feminism and, to an extent, the patriarchal political stances of the New Right.1
This is Our Message discusses an intriguing conception of feminism. Johnson demonstrates that feminism can be a fluid term and that different women have defined it in various ways during the past several decades. Feminism cannot be considered a monolithic movement. For women like Sarah Palin, any woman’s political power represents a victory for feminism, even as Palin took positions at odds with those of many contemporary feminists. Palin’s political activities also represent a shift in conservative women’s approach to feminism.2 Marabel Morgan refused to call herself a feminist. While her emphasis on wifely submission contrasted with contemporary feminism, the use of her voice in a political manner showcased a degree of agreement with feminism’s claim that women should participate politically.3 Beverly LaHaye and Anita Bryant took political advocacy even further, blurring the lines between feminism and anti-feminism as they publicly took conservative stances on social issues like LGBT rights and abortion. Still, since both refused to call themselves feminists, Sarah Palin’s decision to refer to herself as a conservative feminist demonstrates the changing meaning of feminism in conservative circles. Palin’s decision to claim the mantle of feminism demonstrates an example of how word meanings can change depending on place and time. Johnson thus analyzes culture as much as political movements, since she charts Evangelical Christianity’s changing relationship with the concept of feminism.4
This is Our Message offers historians a new way to think about women’s participation in political movements that do not seem to support women’s rights. By focusing on the New Right, which took conservative positions on abortion, LGBT rights, sex education, birth control, and the Equal Rights Amendment, Johnson seeks to understand why some women believed the New Right represented their interests. Johnson challenges the idea that women would naturally gravitate to liberal political causes. While some historians had emphasized women’s roles in various progressive causes, such as temperance, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the labor movement, Johnson chooses to write about a movement that, at first glance, seemed to offer women few opportunities for empowerment. By trying to understand why some women found the New Right’s Evangelical activism attractive, Johnson recognizes the range of women’s political opinions. Especially in her discussion of Tammy Bakker’s later support for LGBT rights, Johnson demonstrates the nuances of political opinion. She offers an interesting counterpoint within the New Right to Anita Bryant’s vocal opposition to LGBT rights.5 Furthermore, she challenges the notion that conservative Evangelical Christianity automatically eliminated women’s opportunities for political participation. By giving six examples of Evangelical women who rose to prominence in the New Right, Johnson demonstrates that women could attain positions in the movement even as it still denied women the most prominent roles. At the same time, she carefully avoids overstating women’s routes to recognition and empowerment within the New Right by citing several examples of women who lost favor within the New Right through decisions, most notably divorce, that many Evangelical leaders frowned upon. Ultimately, the New Right still sought to limit women’s rights, and Johnson recognizes this in her writing.6
While the New Right offered women opportunities to engage in political advocacy on a range of social issues, the movement appears to have largely excluded women from the conversation surrounding economic policy. While the Ronald Reagan Administration took conservative stances on social issues like LBGT rights and abortion, Reagan’s most prominent policies included reducing federal spending, cutting taxes for higher-income earners, and slashing regulations. Johnson could have offered more analysis on what role, if any, the women she discusses had in formulating New Right economic policy. This would enhance her study by giving a deeper understanding of what political roles the New Right refused to allow women to hold. While women had long advocated on issues concerning the family and religion’s role in society, conservative movements had generally prohibited women from engaging in discussions of economic policy. By analyzing women’s role in New Right economic policy, Johnson could further show the limits of empowerment within the New Right. Still, Johnson offers a compelling analysis of the ways that women within the New Right challenged feminist understandings of what being a woman means as well as Evangelical Christian stances on women’s proper roles. While she could have offered a deeper analysis of economic policy, Johnson demonstrates the nuanced effect of the New Right on women’s empowerment in a way ignored by previous historians.
Western Carolina University
1 Emily S. Johnson, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 1-10, 121-145.
2 Johnson, This is Our Message, 121-145.
3 Ibid., 11-37.
4 Ibid., 38-92, 121-145.
5 Johnson, This is Our Message, 68-92, 121-145.
6 Ibid., 11-120.