Today, Nursing Clio is pleased to feature an interview with historian Emily Suzanne Johnson, assistant professor of history at Ball State University. Her new book, This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2019), examines the politics of feminism and women’s leadership in twentieth-century American evangelical Christianity. She recently discussed the book, evangelical feminism, and the cocktail of the season with me.
Lauren: How did you become interested in the conservative women’s movement? Who were your historiographical influences?
Emily: Michael Lienesch’s Redeeming America (about the politics and rhetoric of the New Christian Right) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors (about conservative women’s grassroots activism in the 1960s) piqued my interest. Both fascinated me — I loved their deep dives into the logic and language of these movements, which were not well understood at the time, at least in the academic world.
My personal history was also part of what drew me to this subject. I grew up in a left-leaning Canadian family, but I also have very conservative, evangelical relatives in the United States. I felt like I had an interesting perspective on the American religious right, since I had a deep personal understanding of the movement while also understanding why it can seem so illegible to people outside of it.
As I kept reading histories of this movement, one thing that was missing was the history of women’s leadership within it. We have great studies on male leadership and on the importance of women’s grassroots support, but relatively little acknowledgment of the movement’s reliance on female leaders at the national level. There are women whose names would come up frequently, but they were generally treated as anomalies or paradoxes in a movement otherwise led by men.
My book argues that although this movement focused on a particular idea of “traditional gender roles,” it was fundamentally shaped by women leaders, who helped to formulate its rhetoric and mobilize supporters.
Lauren: The book examines Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Beverly LaHaye, and Tammy Faye Bakker as historical figures — what strikes you as the major differences or threads of similarity that bind these conservative activists together?
Emily: These women were all conservative, white evangelicals who took on national leadership roles during the rise of the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s. Most were famous within evangelical subculture before becoming political figures, but their relationships to political leadership were strikingly different.
Marabel Morgan (who became famous as an author of surprisingly spicy Christian marital advice) has always resisted the idea that her work was political. When her first book came out in 1973, it was held up as an example of the kind of retrograde patriarchal marriage ideal that feminists were fighting against. She counseled women to stay sexy for their husbands and adapt to their husbands’ needs, and she strongly implied that if they failed to do so, their sons might grow up to be gay. But her book is an example of how much the politics of gender and sexuality were shifting at the time. If the book had come out a decade earlier, it would have fit in with most mainstream marriage advice. A decade later, it would be unbelievable that Morgan thought of it as apolitical. Her resistance to take on a political identity is also emblematic of a broader ambivalence about politics among conservative Christians at the time, and her work is an example of how the political ideas of the New Christian Right circulated in purportedly apolitical evangelical media.
Anita Bryant and Beverly LaHaye avoided overt political engagement early in their careers, but became prominent political figures in the late 1970s. Anita Bryant was a pop star who became the face of a national backlash against the gay rights movement. Beverly LaHaye was an evangelical self-help writer and speaker who founded Concerned Women for America in 1979. (Today, it’s the largest conservative women’s organization in the country). Both struggled with the idea of being a female political leader and advocating conservative gender roles. They both concluded that political engagement was part of every woman’s Christian duty, and that God had called them to be leaders. Their negotiations of those positions tell us a lot about the gender politics of this movement, and its relationship to a broader political and religious history.
Tammy Faye Bakker is a fascinating case. With her husband Jim, she ran the largest televangelical network in the 1980s. It even had its own theme park! Even though women’s leadership in the religious right was well established by the 1980s, there was still an assumption that women were less political than men, and this gave Bakker leeway to make some unexpected choices. Most notably, she was one of the first people to interview an HIV-positive gay man on television. The interview was overwhelmingly empathetic, and she admonished Christians to welcome people with AIDS in their own communities.
Despite their differences, these women all used similar language to justify their prominence. They often talked about their public roles as an extension of their roles as mothers, which is something that women across the political spectrum have done for centuries. Bryant, for example, called her anti-gay-rights organization “Protect America’s Children,” while Bakker invoked ideas about motherly love to explain her empathy for people with AIDS.
Lauren: Sex is at the heart of a lot of their arguments — who is having it, that is! Talk to me about the ways that these conservative activists viewed sex. Why was sex so important to them?
Emily: A lot of these women started their careers as authors of evangelical marital advice books in one way or another. This is partly because of traditions surrounding women’s leadership in conservative evangelical communities, which have tended to prohibit women taking leadership roles over men but allowed women to lead groups for women or children. So there’s a long tradition of women’s ministries, which are subgroups within (or sometimes outside of) churches in which women get together to learn about “women’s things” (which typically means things that revolve around the family). After World War II, evangelical subculture started expanding rapidly and Christian publishers had to look for new ways to compete with one another. Women have been the main consumers of Christian books forever, so someone had the brilliant idea to start publishing Christian books by and for women. In the grand tradition of women’s ministries, these tend to be books about family, children, and sexuality.
Beginning in the 1960s, evangelical communities became concerned about staying relevant in the context of major cultural changes. One of the ways that they did that is by reclaiming some aspects of contemporary sexual revolutions for themselves. Starting in the 1970s, conservative Christian sex manuals became much more permissive in terms of what married, heterosexual, Christian couples could do in the bedroom. They even emphasized that God designed sex for pleasure and not just procreation.
At the same time, though, conservative churches were really concerned about other aspects of the sexual revolution, and so these marriage manuals draw strict lines. They were very clear in stating that sex is only for married couples (which implicitly meant heterosexual couples). They also argued that sex could only be fulfilling in the context of a Christian marriage, sanctioned by God. Many of them went even further, as I mentioned above, by arguing that parents have a duty to demonstrate healthy, happy heterosexual marriages because if they don’t, their kids could grow up to be gay — or feminist.
All of this dovetailed with the rhetoric of a developing political movement in which conservative Christian activists were especially concerned about cultural changes related to sex, including the sexual revolution, the gay liberation movement, and the decriminalization of abortion. They were concerned about other things, too, of course but sex was frequently at the heart of it.
Lauren: Explain the cocktail of the season — the Anita Bryant! What is it, and why should we drink it?
Emily: I love this question! Anita Bryant was a longtime spokeswoman for Florida orange juice in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977, she launched a backlash against gay-rights legislation, first locally in Miami-Dade County, and then nationally. In response, gay-rights groups and their supporters across the country boycotted Florida orange juice. Gay bars stopped serving screwdrivers (made with vodka and orange juice) and instead served “Anita Bryants” (made with vodka and some other juice, usually cranberry, apple, or Tang).
None of these options sound very good to me, honestly, so I suggest another alternative. When the Florida Citrus Commission started phasing Bryant out, they were simultaneously ramping up a campaign to sell more grapefruit juice. Therefore, I hereby declare the drink of the summer to be: vodka, fresh-squeezed California grapefruit juice, and a splash of orange bitters for good measure.
And as you’re squeezing those grapefruits, know that one of the slogans of the boycott was “squeeze a fruit for Anita.”
Lauren: What do you think feminism gets right — and wrong — about conservative women activists and the Christian Right?
Emily: I think that most feminists perceive the New Christian Right as a backlash against contemporary feminism, and there’s a lot of truth to that. Of course, there were conservative Christian activists in the United States well before this, motivated by a lot of different things. But the mass mobilization in the 1970s had to do with a sense of cultural alienation related to the growing mainstream acceptance of feminism, among other things. One reason that the New Christian Right needed female leadership was to counter the narrative that this was just a movement of men angry about feminism. And some of the movement’s leaders were open about this strategy. Beverly LaHaye frequently said that she felt called to political leadership because she felt like feminists were claiming to speak for all women in America, and only women could effectively argue against that.
In terms of misconceptions, they’re best summed up by two common questions that come up when I give talks on my work or publish about it in popular forums, which are: “don’t you think these women were just following what the men were doing?” and “why do these women vote against their own interests?”
The first question always flabbergasts me a little because it seems so paternalistic. Certainly, conservative Christian women are influenced by their communities. But aren’t we all?
As for the second question, the answer is that they don’t; nobody votes against their own interests. People might vote against your perception of what their interests should be, but they vote in line with their interests as they define them. I think that if we recognize that, and really try to understand people’s perspectives, we could have more productive conversations about some of our most pressing political issues.
Great piece. I remember those Anita Bryant orange juice commercials and all of this and glad to see it explored by a historian.