Published: Aug. 1, 1999 By

[1]   Buried within the political platforms of Elizabeth Dole are two distinct and competing conservative ideologies about gender and the role of women in society. On the one hand, Dole refers to an explicitly Christian paradigm when making claims about gender and society; on the other, she also consistently refers to the rhetoric of free choice as the foundation for her conservative ideas about the role of women in society. This doubly-grounded strategy has launched an attack on women in America that should not be taken lightly.

[2]   At the time of this writing, there is a growing support for Dole's candidacy for the upcoming GOP presidential nomination. A recent article in the National Review appropriately entitled "She's Got Next" claims that,

according to polls, Elizabeth Dole is one of the Republican Party's strongest candidates. She appeals to Christian conservatives and the party establishment, a rare combination. Most of her advisors are encouraging her… . She has more campaign experience than almost anyone else in the GOP. Her skills on the stump need no elaboration for anyone who watched her masterly performance at the San Diego convention in 1996…Some argue that Mrs. Dole will turn out to be the strongest candidate because of her ties to Christian conservatives and because the party is so obsessed with the gender gap.1

Elizabeth Dole herself tells her biographer that, "I am convinced that in my lifetime a woman will break through the political glass ceiling and be elected president," and she may very well be right.2If Elizabeth Dole is nominated, it may not be the kind of woman that feminists have hoped for.

[3]   My aim in this essay is twofold. First, I hope to demonstrate that although religious and secular discourses may strive for similar outcomes and social arrangements, they engage in very different strategies to achieve this goal. For conservative Christians, relationship with God is at stake in confining women to traditionally gendered roles; for secular women, the conservative impetus stems from their belief that traditional gender roles offer a superior guide for a meaningful life. While these two discourses are not always totally incompatible, I want to demonstrate here that they are founded on completely different principles and political foundations. The collapse of these two discourses in the platform of Elizabeth Dole functions to bolster conservative thinking and to swell the ranks of her supporters.

[4]   Second, I want to address the politics of Dole directly because her campaign is deeply threatening to many feminist agendas. As a result of recent media hype around Dole's pitch for the presidency, several troubling formulations have emerged where Dole – largely because she is female – is configured as a "feminist" candidate. I believe that this interpretation of Dole as a feminist candidate is highly inaccurate; indeed, she poses a very serious danger to women's rights. If elected, she is quite likely to advance agendas initiated by Reagan and Bush such as assaults on abortion and welfare. The key to successfully defeating her campaign rests both with a clear understanding of why Dole is not a feminist, and with a deeper awareness of the shared interests between leftist Christians and progressive feminists on this issue.


Gender and Christian Theology

[5]   In this section, I display the dominant stakes in conservative Christian theology regarding gender, in order to discuss how Dole fits into this ideology and uses it to her benefit. I will argue here that women's organizations involved with conservative Christianity–such as Schlafly's Eagle Forum or LaHaye's Concerned Women of America–operate within a theology rooted in the nineteenth-century separation of spheres and Cult of Domesticity. It is important to note up front that I am not speaking here of all Christians, but only those explicitly identified with the campaign for family values and with other conservative formulations of Christianity. Many other strands of Christianity exist which do not depend on the Cult of Domesticity for their theological grounding. Indeed, many mainline and progressive strands of Christianity openly resist the conservative ideology associated with the Christian right. My point here is to examine the cultural and religious antecedents of conservative Christians today in order to understand their positions in today's political environment.


[6]   The Cult of Domesticity is a difficult thing to describe; scholars have complex theories and ideas about it. In general, I understand the thesis of the Cult of Domesticity to suggest that throughout the nineteenth century, a logic developed which configured women's sphere of home and family as the sole refuge from the outside life, the "haven in a heartless world." The definition of home as the woman's sphere was accompanied by ideological changes about household life itself. Technologies enabled houses and children to be neater, more intricate, more presentable, attributes that signified a family's success in the new order. Thus, although every adult person–in theory–could have survived independently on his or her own wages, the logic of the day dictated that every man needed a woman to guarantee honor, order, and morality in his household. Keeping women at home and out of the public sphere also functioned to reduce the labor pool and thereby to allow men more opportunity for success. Together, the male and female gender roles functioned to produce a family that would help men succeed in the world of business and industry while simultaneously signifying that success.

[7]   It is extremely important to note that the Cult of Domesticity existed largely among middle and upper class white women of the mid-nineteenth century. As many historians of women have pointed out, black women, ethnic women and women lower classes were not relegated to the home or private sphere during industrialization; indeed, they continued to work outside the home in factory sweat shops as well as in positions of domestic labor. By focusing on those women who–in some sense–had the privilege of staying home, I do not mean to imply that these middle and upper class women represented all women's experiences in nineteenth century. Rather, I focus on the doctrine of separate spheres because in my research I found that the rhetoric and ideology of the contemporary Christian right most closely resembles that of the Cult of Domesticity associated with separate spheres.

[8]   Religion played a two-fold role in the development and maintenance of the ideology of women's sphere. First, as Nancy Cott and Caroll Smith-Rosenberg have shown, organized churches and denominational bodies were the first legitimate meeting places for women, and it was in church that women first learned to connect with each other. Religion was a powerful organizational force for the establishment of reform and benevolence movements, the creation of women's culture, and the necessary precursor to feminism. Most importantly, the church provided the aegis under which Christian women learned organizational skills and assumed positions of authority. Over the course of the nineteenth century, female church and voluntary organizations became involved in a long list of social struggles which began with temperance and abolition, and grew to include urban development, social welfare programs, social work, the settlement house movement, immigrant education, labor reform, and eventually, of course, suffrageMany reform impulses of the nineteenth century found their leadership and their organizational and moral centers in church.

[9]   Religion also played an ideological role in the development and maintenance of the Cult of Domesticity. During this period, women were seen not simply as better human beings, but rather as better Christians than men. Here, morality and spirituality were deeply intertwined; a woman was better suited to raise the children, it was believed, because she was better at living and teaching the Christian faith. Women were thought to be more naturally equipped to receive and live the Christian message; women's meekness, imagination, sensitivity, and emotional nature made them, to nineteenth-century eyes, more Christ-like. Where Christ brought redemption to the world through his suffering and patience, women could bring redemption to their own families by practicing the same virtues. As evangelist Billy Sunday was to articulated it fifty years later, "Jesus and women can save this old world. It remains with womanhood today to lift our social life to a higher plane."3 Through a wife and mother's moral fiber and religious orientation, each family could directly participate in the redemption of Christ.

[10]   These special attributes of women gave each nineteenth-century family a fool-proof access and connection to God, and through this guaranteed that the structure of the family remained intact. That is, women were thought to be the point of contact between God and an entire family; in order to be insured a place in the theological order, every person needed to be a member of a traditional family, with a mother at home to provide moral and spiritual instruction and maintenance. The nineteenth-century paradigm of separate spheres functioned to guarantee relationship to God by placing everyone inside a family, and making one member of that family (the one most present and available) responsible for the spiritual life of every member. Thus, while the family was no longer an economic necessity, it became instead a theological one.

[11]   These two roles of religion interacted and supported each other. Nineteenth-century women were members of organized churches and there learned about the spiritual dimensions of their positions as wives and mothers. Their spirituality then lead them to take up positions of moral superiority in society at large. That is, women believed that the values they upheld in the home qualified them to organize for benevolence outside the home. Thus, the spiritual authority imputed to women complemented the church-related reform activities in which women were involved. As several historians note, "implicit in such activism was the conviction that the female experience represented a cultural alternative to the materialism and competitive individualism of industrial capitalism."4Thus, the Cult of Domesticity was not something that was confined to the home, but rather extended to and influenced many aspects of wider society.

[12]   The Cult of Domesticity left a strong theological legacy for American Christians, a legacy which claims that Christianity is better when it is practiced inside a family with a full-time mother. The ideology of domesticity reconfigured American Christianity by locating theological and spiritual fulfillment only within those social units where both genders are represented, i.e., only within the confines of the "traditional" family. I suggest that this Cult of Domesticity set American Christianity on a gendered pathway for understanding God and continues to shape the way American Christians relate to God today. A glance at contemporary moral controversies reveals that the gender configurations set forth in the nineteenth century exist and are still being fought over today. It is not the case that Christians today think that women are unworthy of God or less spiritually equipped than men, formulations which preceded the nineteenth century. Nor is it the case that we understand gender as incidental to relationship with God. Rather, the debates that surround women's role in public, paid labor, reproduction and abortion, childrearing, and the family's role in American culture reflect the gendered convictions generated by the Cult of Domesticity. Women ought to stay and home, raise the family, and create a haven in the heartless world of the late twentieth century, conservative Christians argue, precisely because they are pure, pious, and relate to God more naturally. The public controversies that surround the role of women on the Christian right are at their heart theological because what is primarily at stake is how gender matters in a person's relationship with God. By following the traces of the Cult of Domesticity in contemporary conservative Christian culture, it becomes even clearer that the today's conservative attitudes toward women and the family are extensions of nineteenth-century theological convictions.

[13]   For contemporary conservative Christians, God is known primarily through gender. Just as in nineteenth-century ideology, conservative Christian women need men for material sustenance; conservative Christian men need women to daily recreate the spirituality associated with home. Male-female relationships are crucial because, as Christian right leader Gary Bauer put it, "men and women need each other to share their lives together and to build a better future."5 Neither men nor women have complete access to God alone. Men need women to have a successful relationship with God, and women need men to support the family so that they may stay at home and develop their spiritual and moral sensibilities. Singlehood, in this frame, is rarely seen as a viable and permanent choice for life.

[14]   Because gender is the primary organizing category for conservative theology, females are initially sorted from males; femaleness and the home exist on one side, maleness and public work exist on the other. The two categories meet only on the terms of the heterosexual family, the entity which grounds the whole system. In this system where God is male, women relate to God directly where men can only know God one step removed. In using the heterosexual family as the model for Christian theology, the ideology of domesticity constructs and verifies the idea that heterosexuality and the nuclear family are both necessary and intrinsic to Christian existence. If God is the father and women are responsible for conducting that relationship, the family, the home and the heterosexual relationship then appear to mimic the most holy way of negotiating life.

[15]   Contemporary Christian women leaders warn other Christians that women are in danger of becoming more interested in their careers than in their families; that children are suffering because their mothers are at work rather than taking care of them; that divorce rates rise because women aren't fulfilling their roles as wives; and that the character of the nation is eroding because its families are no longer intact. According to many women on the Christian right, God wants every American family to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to keep the wife and mother at home, full-time. If society accepts the feminist assertion of equality between women and men, many conservative women would lose their theological superiority; if women no longer provide a "haven in a heartless world," they themselves may perish in that heartless world. As Mrs. Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, describes the feeling, "The women's liberation movement is turning into men's liberation because we are freeing them from their responsibilities. I think we are being taken for a ride."6 Or as Beverly LaHaye writes, "Feminism is more than an illness; it is a philosophy of death." 7 For these women, the move toward equality between the sexes destabilizes what they perceive as the powerful position women hold in society. From their viewpoints, women who stay at home are freed up from the labor force in order to do the important work of God. Changes that threaten this order undermine "the abundant life God has planned especially for women."8

[16]   In her work on conservative women, Rebecca Klatch noticed this tendency to valorize home and dependency. As she suggests, "One of the most valuable property rights a woman now has is the right to be provided for by her husband; feminism (particularly ERA) will eliminate this right. Whereas now a wife has certain remedies if her husband neglects his responsibilities, such as purchasing goods on her husband's credit card and letting the store handle collection of payment, feminism will destroy such options."9 For many Christian women, the greatest security women can have is found within the system whereby relationship with God is dependent on gender, and where every family needs a woman to secure theological connection. The feminist struggle to provide women with equal access to employment thus degrades women, as well as functioning, as Beverly LaHaye puts it, "to confuse our priorities, to shortchange our homes and families, and to totally exhaust ourselves."10 The best plan for women is to stay home, for it is there, conservatives believe, that women can exert the greatest Christian influence. As Pat Robertson articulated it,

We've got to come back to the point of Christian marriage, Christian childcare, Christian families, and we've got to come to the point where being a housewife is a noble profession and not something that's sneered at and looked down on by emancipated ladies. That's very important. Who rules our nation? Who is going to determine the next generation? It's not going to be the politicians and the presidents and the senators and judges–it's going to be the mothers.11

For conservative Christians, one's place in the economic, social, and spiritual system of the Christian right is dictated by gender. Because feminism only confuses these models, it is therefore inherently evil.

[17]   The restrictive view of women's role embraced by the right allows many women feel secure within the fold of conservative Christianity. Choice, they believe, only confuses women–especially if they are not prepared to thrive in a "harsh" world. As Margaret Bendroth explains it,

women like men, found a clear, though perhaps narrow, call to Christian vocation and a language of cultural critique that simplified the daunting range of choices in a secular lifestyle. Women perhaps especially appreciate the movement's high standards for family life. The Christian right upholds women's role in the family and even more important, provides a forum for like-minded women to air common fears and hopes for their children.12

Indeed, for any woman who has every tried to find a job in an economy with high unemployment or struggled with the often competing demands of a career and family, the idea of staying at home and daily recreating a "haven in a heartless world" is sometimes attractive. As late capitalism often makes work in the public sphere more difficult and time consuming, the rhetoric of the Christian right becomes more efficacious than ever.

[18]   Although many women participate in the public ministry as an extension of their involvement with the spiritual and moral duties associated with childrearing and home-making, most gain their access to public ministry through their husbands. On the national level, Tammy Faye Bakker, Macel Falwell, Ruth Bell Graham, Maude Aimee Humbard, Evelyn Roberts, Arvella Schuller, Beverly LaHaye and Frances Swaggart all played very active roles in their husband's ministry. As Frances Swaggart outlined her involvement, "People would be most surprised to learn that I play as large a role in the ministry as I do. I work in every phase of the ministry and everybody answers to me. I know where all the money goes. I get reports every day, and I go through every one."13 Swaggert's participation is not extraordinary. Other wives fill in as host on their husband's television shows, while others have control over various aspects of the ministry. In one sense, these women work in these ministries to fulfill their commitment to God, as Michael Hamilton put it, "to live selfless lives wholly dedicated to God,"14 or as Rex Humbard's wife put it, "The Lord spoke to me and said 'Soldier, I have a job for you to do.'"15 On the other hand, however, these women only have access to the airwaves or to publishing in the first place through their husbands and by virtue of the fact that the role of wife and mother in conservative Christian circles is valorized.

[19]   Thus, according to the logic of domesticity, a woman is allowed to speak, but only from within a complicated web of domestic and cultural dynamics. She is almost completely dependent on her husband for initial public recognition; she can only be seen as a valid authority in the submissive role of wife and mother. By taking up this role, conservative Christian argue, true freedom can be enjoyed. As Beverly LaHaye articulates, "The woman who is truly Spirit-filled will want to be totally submissive to her husband. This is a truly liberated woman. Submission is God's design for women."16 These faithful and loving Christian wives exemplify the kind of controlled power that women have within the ideology of the Cult of Domesticity. Today's conservative women ought first to be a wife and mother; she may participate in the public sphere only if it advances the Christian message and only with her husband's permission.


Dole as Conservative Christian

[20]   What is most interesting about Elizabeth Dole is that – for contemporary Christians – Dole signifies the truth and validity of conservative gender formulations without living out those principles in her own life. Dole does not stay at home, does not have children, her husband is not involved in religion, her career began independently of his. However, Dole is able to de-emphasize her personal life by highlighting the rhetoric of conservative Christianity. For example, Dole is extremely popular among evangelicals and circulates well in conservative Christianity in part due to her well-publicized 1983 conversion to Christianity, which is often cited by Christians as her fundamental credential for political involvement. Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, tells her story like this: "Raised in a strong Christian family in North Carolina, Dole acknowledges that after she moved to Washington DC, career and politics began to crowd out spiritual growth. She had 'God neatly compartmentalized, crammed into a crowded file drawer of my life,' she once said, and realized that 'If Christ is who he says he is, I need to submit my resignation as master of my own universe.'"17 The secular press is also readily aware of her conversion and Christian identity; Time magazine, for example, reported that "during a time of trouble in 1983, instead of seeing a therapist, she sought out the Christian version: she began to attend Monday-night meetings at a church near Dupont Circle in Washington, where a small group of people discussed their spiritual quests. She says she had no epiphany, no revelation, but found solace in a theological solution."18 Dole confirms these reports, claiming, "I meet often with a group of women who are strong Christians and have prayer and fellowship. And as I move along the campaign trail, it's a wonderful experience when people who know that I am a Christian or have heard me speak will hand me something that has been particularly meaningful to them."19Indeed, she tells her biographer, "My faith means a lot to me. I don't feel that I have to do it all on my own. I think I can face challenging situations and feel there's a source of strength beyond myself, that it's not all just on my shoulders."20


[21]   Thus, despite the fact that Dole doesn't fit the model of woman advocated by conservative ideology, she uses and is used by the Christian right to gain power and political credibility. Unlike Tammy Faye Bakker, Ruth Bell Graham, Beverly LaHaye or Frances Swaggart, Elizabeth Dole is not participating in public life as an extension of her husband's ministry. Although some feminists have accused her of putting her husband's career before her own, she is not perceived of as being submissive. Indeed, from conservative Christian perspectives, she is often seen as the strong one, while Bob is often viewed as weak or suspicious. AsTime reports, "Elizabeth Dole has tremendous appeal to Christian conservatives and people in the evangelical movement because they know she's active in the movement. They may have doubts about Bob Dole, who sometimes seems to regard God as a junior senator from an unimportant state, but they don't harbor any about his wife."21 Another reporter for New York Times Magazinereinforced the differences between the two Doles: "Mrs. Dole now spends 30 minutes each day with the Bible or in prayer–which she calls her devotional time–and is a favorite of the religious conservatives who do not trust her husband."22 The conversion itself sets her apart from Bob, it seems, and renders her politics acceptable; as reported in the National Review, "More than one anti-abortion activist said in 1996 that while they didn't trust Bob Dole, they thought his wife would be a good influence on him because she had a spiritual awakening in 1983."23 If, as I suggested above, women are the point of contact between God and the conservative Christian family, a strong, faithful wife is even more important when the husband is viewed as weak, as seen in the case of the Doles.

[22]   The overall effect of Elizabeth Dole's rhetoric reinforces the necessity for one member of the family to remain spiritually tied to Christianity. While it does nor precisely follow the traditional formula outlined by Christians like Beverly LaHaye, as long as Elizabeth remains involved with religion, the Doles together are seen by other conservative Christians as having a point of contact with God. And although Elizabeth was not a stay-at-home mother, her evangelical theology enhances her appearance as a pro-family candidate. Indeed, in a story comparing Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, one woman interviewed said "Mrs. Dole just seems more family-oriented to me." And when the reporter points out that Mrs. Clinton is actually the one with the child, and that Mrs. Dole is childless, this woman responds by saying "I know. But you don't have to have a child to be family oriented."24 Dole's religion, it seems, automatically wraps her in the safe arms of "family-values" and explicitly associates her, however loosely, with the larger project of conservative evangelicalism.

[23]   Few can forget the ironic scene in Susan Faludi's Backlashwhere Faludi is interviewing Beverly LaHaye. The interview is interrupted by LaHaye's personal assistant who needs to get approval for eight different trips upcoming in the next three weeks. LaHaye signs off on the trips and returns to Faludi with the words, "Women must put family as their top priority. If it means giving up the career then so be it."25 (When I teach this book in both undergraduate and seminary settings, it is this inconsistency that drives my students most crazy.) The same inconsistency holds true for Elizabeth Dole. Dole travels extensively and has a staff of twenty assistants and aides. (Indeed, as Newsweek reports, "Dole demands that an aide walk the route she takes into every auditorium and count the steps she will have to take in high heels."26) As Faludi concluded, conservative spokeswoman "could report to their offices in their suits, issue press releases demanding that women return to the home, and never see a contradiction. By divorcing their personal liberation from their public stands on sexual politics, they could privately take advantage of feminism while publicly deploring its influence. They could indeed have it all–by working to prevent all other women from having that same opportunity."27 My point here is that although her lifestyle does not match her rhetoric, the Christian right has taken up and endorsed Dole because they believe in her ability to advance conservative theological orientations of women. In this "do as I say not as I do" logic, Dole fulfills the role of spiritual wife and signifies herself and her family as following conservative gender patterns. Dole's so-called feminism must be seen in light of this conservative religious configuration.


Post-Feminist Secular Ideology

[24]   Secular conservative women, by contrast, dismiss religious configurations in favor of a rhetoric stemming from (and twisting the meanings of) certain configurations of feminism. Theorists associated with the Women's Freedom Network and the Independent Women's Forum advocate, as their organizational names imply, freedom and independence. They oppose any political project which advocates structural change for women in favor of an ideology of complete personal choice. Their platforms have little to do with theology; rather they use the languages of liberalism and liberal feminism to suggest that women should be allowed to "freely choose" dependency, domesticity, and conventional women's roles. Thus, these public figures encourage women to choose full-time motherhood and family life as legitimate feminist options.


[25]   A new group of self proclaimed "post-feminist" and "conservative feminist" speakers have emerged in the academy who–on the basis of individual choice–make a series of claims that stand in opposition to a long history feminist thinking. In theirProfessing Feminism, for example, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge argue that contemporary American feminism has fallen prey to a "political correctness" which limits and inhibits a wider set of social possibilities and choices for women. "Whereas feminists originally argued for a loosening of gender roles, now there is great pressure from within for conformity."28 In the name of feminism, Patai and Koertge castigate feminist agendas that have attempted to include minorities (such as lesbians and black women). Because they believe that straight, white people are victims of identity policing, these authors want everyone to rely only on generic humanness, without appeal to unique experiences involved with structural identities (like woman, black, or lesbian). Differences such as gender, class, race and sexual preference should be ignored, they argue, so that everyone will have maximum access to free choice. They believe that feminist liberation is a matter of overcoming oppression with education and self-respect, not of structural change for women's lives.

[26]   Similarly, Christina Hoff Sommers, in Who Stole Feminism?, decries what she calls "gender feminism," which, she suggests, focuses too narrowly on oppression, inequality, and difference. She opposes any feminism that "is filled with resentment that rationalizes and fosters a wholesale rancor to women."29According to her, there is no reason for women to be angry as no oppression really exists. Because women have been accepted in the public domain, they have already won. Self-consciously valorizing the language of individual freedom, Sommers suggests, "gender feminism has little faith in the Enlightenment principles that influenced the founders of American political order and that inspired the great classical feminists to wage their fight for women's rights."30 In contradistinction to most feminists today, she doesn't think gender oppression is widespread enough to warrant attention; rather, she sees the project of gaining equality for women as complete. The task that confronts feminism in the future, she suggests, is to help women make better choices for themselves with this new-found freedom. Thus, Patai and Koertge and Hoff Sommers all agree that women should abandon their obsession with misogyny, an obsession that has disabled them in the public sphere and seize the opportunities and choices afforded them as full-fledged members of the human race. These texts pave paths for women to feel good about making choices for traditional female roles.

[27]   In a similar vein, Rene Denfeld's The New Victoriansaccuses the contemporary feminist movement–including NOW, women's studies courses, and feminist leaders–of being anti-male, sexually repressed, too focused on lesbianism, too invested in victim mythology, opposed to free speech, and overly involved with spirituality and morality; as she puts it, "the [feminist] movement has become bogged down in an extremist moral and spiritual crusade that has little to do with women's lives."31 These tendencies, she claims, account for why young women refuse the identity of feminism.

[28]   Finally, in her best-selling Feminism is Not the Story of My Life, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese critiques mainline feminism for making pronouncements and assumptions about women's lives. For her, feminism should ultimately be about women's self-determination; insofar that it is interested in social issues broader than individual choice, it has "lost touch with the real concerns of women." As she writes,

Feminists accuse the religious right of trying to dictate what a woman should be and how she should think about a vast array of complicated problems. Meanwhile, these same feminists practice the very thing they preach against…Feminist diversity does not embrace women who oppose abortion, do not view heterosexual encounter as rape, prefer to stay home with young children, see some value in single-sex education, or do not want every workplace flirtation to be punished as sexual harassment.32

While Fox-Genovese's portrayal of feminism is, like many other post-feminist portrayals, unquestionably narrow and distorted, the underlying message here is clear. From this perspective, women should be allowed to freely choose anything they want, even if they make choices that feminists see as oppressive.

[29]   These post-feminist scholars diverge from conservative Christian women on a number of counts. First and foremost, these secular theorists are not opposed to or afraid of feminist discourse; indeed, in their thinking, they claim to advance American feminism by rendering it more tolerant of conservative lifestyles. Where conservative Christians eschew feminism because they believe it opposes Christian theology, these post-feminist scholars embrace the language of feminism (and extend it in ways that counter some of its central tenets.) Where conservative Christian women leaders largely rose to power through their husbands' ministries, contemporary post-feminists are largely independent, strong-minded women who have achieved success in their own right. They are often single women or women who have accomplished some measure of fame before their marriage.

[30]   These academic post-feminists and others are part of a larger movement growing in America today. Daphne Patai, Noretta Koertge, Christina Hoff Sommers, Rene Denfeld, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese helped to found and regularly speak at conventions of a growing number of organizations that identify themselves as post-feminist. As Jean Hardisty writes:

Conservative academic women have generated new organizations to speak for them. Working hand-in-hand with the Women's Freedom Network is the Independent Women's Forum, designed to influence media coverage of the progress of women toward equality. These women abhor all discussion of women as victims, refusing to accept that women as a class are oppressed. They believe in competing for status and success without regard to gender considerations and are viciously disdainful of women who consider gender a factor in their personal or career development.33

Like the academic texts associated with the post-feminist movement, the newsletters of these organizations argue against multiculturalism ("diversity often serves to limit, rather than to expand, the pool of potential students or faculty who meet scholarly standards"), against the category of sexual harassment ("the problem with the hostile environment standard [for judging sexual misconduct] is that it allows each victim to define the crime for herself"), and against the idea that gender bias exists ("at least 78% of both male and female respondents have never observed a judge engage in any discriminatory behaviors"). Indeed, the commitment to maintain the (alleged) existing total equality between the genders is reflected in the Women's Freedom Network's Statement of Principles, "to share a philosophy that defines women and men as individuals and not in terms of gender."

[31]   Contained within the language of choice in many of these publications are recommendations that women should also proudly and without guilt be able to choose traditional female roles. The Women's Quarterly, published by the Independent Women's Forum, supports the profile of "The New Traditionalist," who both embraces and updates the heterosexual, nuclear family of the 1950's. According to Danielle Crittenden, the new traditionalist mother "reads Martha Stewart rather than Betty Crocker, L.L.Bean rather than Sears and Roebuck…and quits work to devote herself to full-time, attentive care."34 The Women's Quarterly offers advice on "Why Good Help is Hard To Find" and extols women to stay home to do their own childcare.35 In the name of liberalism, these organizations work to educate the desires of women into conventional domestic roles. The underlying objective is to make staying at home a viable attractive option for women. We do not need to encourage women to participate in public space, they suggest; in fact, according to the statistics wielded by these organizations, equality in the public sphere has already been achieved. In the name of real choice, these critics counter traditional feminist convictions that women need to be less dependent on men for material stability. These organizations suggest that women should be allowed to "freely choose" dependency, domesticity, and conventional women's roles. In this ideology, the rhetoric of individual choice takes primacy over all other social concerns. When the allegedly contentless rhetoric of choice and freedom is rapped around such oppressive ideologies, organizations like the Women's Freedom Network and the Independent Women's Forum can masquerade as open, free-thinking institutions. They obscure oppression simply by suggesting it is not oppression if it is freely chosen.


Dole as Post-Feminist

[32]   As early as 1983, Bob Dole called his wife a "sensible feminist." She had by then been a champion of certain kinds of rights for women; as her biographer chronicles, "For years Elizabeth Dole had been a backer of the Equal Rights Amendment and other measures to obtain equality for women. At the FTC she maintained her special interest in women's issues, such as receiving fair consideration for credit cards and loans."36 Dole fits the model of a post-feminist almost perfectly; as USNews and World Report states, "By marrying at 39 and not having children, she broke with the norms of the day…Asked if she considers herself a feminist, she told U.S. News: 'I think if it means that you had some sort of prepackaged answers that are handed down by the political correctness club, no. But if it means that you want equal opportunity for women, more freedom for women–absolutely.'"37 While Dole shies away from heavy use of the language of choice (because she is pro-life), she is quick to appeal to women's rights to embrace whatever lifestyle suits them; asTime reports "some feminists have criticized her for suspending her own career to help her husband's. Her response: 'What we women fought for was the ability to make decisions as to what we feel is best for ourselves and our family.'" Dole uses the ideology of post-feminist conservatism to advance her own standing in the public eye.


[33]   The question must be asked, then, whether this formulation of choice is adequate to feminist politics. One anonymous reviewer of this essay very helpfully pointed out that this formulation of post-feminism is utterly in keeping with classical liberal incarnations. As s/he saw it, the fact that we now see that vision as conservative suggests that there has been a real political sea-change within feminism. I couldn't agree more. To my thinking, liberal formulations of feminism rest on assumptions about subjectivity and politics that no longer address women's liberation. In keeping with a growing feminist consensus that the "post-feminist" ideologies of women like Daphne Patai, Noretta Koertge, Christina Hoff Sommers, Rene Denfeld, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese are not feminist but rather are formulations of sexism wrapped in a thin veneer of feminist rhetoric. I have argued elsewhere that using only the tools provided by liberalism limits the liberating capacity and vision of feminism. Nowhere is this critique more true, I suggest, than in the politics of Elizabeth Dole.


[34]   It is important to note that both conservative Christian and conservative secular women can identify with Dole, an alliance which swells her popularity enormously. However, while secular post-feminists may disagree with certain Christian configurations (and vice versa), neither faction, in Dole's case, is fully aware of the other. As Time reports it, "on the campaign trail, when Dole speaks to audiences about her commitment to politics, she does not mention God. And when she talks to religious audiences about her commitment to God, she does not mention politics."38 Thus, although the two strategies rely on different sets of practices, principles, and languages, and although they may be unaware of each other's existence, both ideologies encourage a similar outcome. For both of these discourses, analyses that point to women's structural oppression are trivialized in favor of claims which view women as equal or superior. Moreover, the underlying goal of both strategies enforces the conviction that women's place is in the home, raising her children and caring for her husband. Working outside the home, in the rhetoric of many these conservative women, is unnecessary, unfulfilling, and unlady-like.

[35]   While these two discourses approach this goal in very different ways, they support and influence each other significantly. An adequate awareness of how these two strands of ideology function is necessary as progressives from all backgrounds plan their defeat of Elizabeth Dole. Only by working together to combat every aspect and formulation of her campaign will we stand a chance against the rising hegemony of the Christian right. That is, feminists must understand both her Christian rhetoric and her post-feminist positionality in order to adequately address how and why Elizabeth Dole is not a feminist at all. The battle must be waged on two different (and sometimes competing) fronts. Feminists must understand that both conservative Christianity and post-feminists secular ideology are in operation in Dole's campaign in order to defeat her attempt at the presidency.




  1. National Review ("She's Got Next" by Ramesh Ponnuru) February 9, 1998, v 50, n 2, p24. back
  2. Carolyn Mulford, Elizabeth Dole: Public Servant (Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1992), 120. back
  3. Billy Sunday, quoted in William T. Ellis, Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message, with His Own Words Which Have Won Thousands for Christ (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1914), 229. back
  4. Jeanne Boydston, Mary Kelley, and Anne Margolis, The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Women's Sphere (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 5. back
  5. Gary Bauer, Our Journey Home: What Parents are Doing to Preserve Family Values (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), 104. back
  6. Mrs. Billy Graham, quoted in Phyllis Schlafly, The Power of the Positive Woman (New York: Jove Publications, 1977), 72-73. back
  7. Quoted in Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Crown Publishers, 1991), 239. back
  8. Beverly LaHaye, The Desires of a Woman's Heart (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 7. back
  9. Rebecca Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 136. back
  10. Beverly LaHaye, The Desires of a Woman's Heart (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 21. back
  11. Pat Robertson, "The Family and the Law," speech presented at the Family Forum II conference, Washington, D.C., July 27, 1982. back
  12. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 11. For other explanations of why women participate in conservative religious communities, see Susan Rose, "Women Warriors: The Negotiation of Gender in a Charismatic Community" in Sociological Analysis1987, 48, 3:245-258, Carol Virginia Pohli, "Church Closets and Back Doors: A Feminist View of Moral Majority Women" inFeminist Studies 9, no. 3 (Fall 1983), 529-558, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, "Contesting Feminist Canons: Discourse and the Problem of Sexist Texts" in Journal of Feminist Studies in ReligionFall 1991, vol.7, no.2, 53-73, and Rebecca Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987). back
  13. James Schaffer and Colleen Todd, Christian Wives: Women Behind the Evangelists Reveal Their Faith in Modern Marriage(New York: Doubleday, 1987), 146. back
  14. Michael Hamilton, "Women, Public Ministry, and American Fundamentalism, 1920-1950" in Religion and American Culture(Summer 1993, Volume 3, Number 2), 174. back
  15. James Schaffer and Colleen Todd, Christian Wives: Women Behind the Evangelists Reveal Their Faith in Modern Marriage(New York: Doubleday, 1987), 87. back
  16. Beverly LaHaye, The Spirit-Controlled Woman (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1976), 71. back
  17. Christianity Today, October 28, 1996, v 40, n 12, 69. back
  18. Time, July 1, 1996, v 148, n2, p30. back
  19. Christianity Today October 28, 1996, v 40, n 12, 69. back
  20. Carolyn Mulford, Elizabeth Dole: Public Servant (Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1992), 79. back
  21. Time, July 1, 1996, v 148, n2 p30. back
  22. Elisabeth Bumiller, "Running Against Hillary," New York Times Magazine October 13, 1996, 40. back
  23. "She's Got Next" by Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, February 9, 1998, v 50, n 2, p 24. back
  24. Elisabeth Bumiller, "Running Against Hillary," New York Times Magazine October 13, 1996, 40. back
  25. Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Crown Publishers, 1991), 254. back
  26. Newsweek, May 27, 1996, v 127, n 22, p 33. back
  27. Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Crown Publishers, 1991), 256. back
  28. Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 3. back
  29. Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism?: How Women have Betrayed Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 41. back
  30. Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 23. back
  31. Rene Denfeld, The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 5. back
  32. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism is Not the Story of My Life: How Today's Feminist Elite has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 30. back
  33. Jean Hardisty, "Kitchen Table Backlash: The Anti-Feminist Women's Movement," in The Public Eye(summer 1996, vol.x, no.2), 4. The Public Eye is produced by Political Research Associates, 120 Beacon Street, Suite 202, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02143-4304. back
  34. Danielle Crittenden, "Turning Back the Clock to the 1950's" inThe Women's Quarterly (Autumn 1996, no 9), 7. Published by the Independent Women's Forum, 2111 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 550, Arlington, Virginia, 22201-3057. back
  35. David Frum, "Why Good Help is Hard to Find," in The Women's Quarterly (Winter 1996, no10), 4. And in case the newsletter can't persuade women to choose to stay home, it also attempts to involve readers in lobbying efforts that would make exploitation of immigrants easier. A companion piece to "Why Good Help is Hard to Find," is titled "You Can't Import it Either," which "decries the absurd immigration policies that allow you to sponsor a fruit picker or butler, but not a qualified nanny." (5) back
  36. Carolyn Mulford, Elizabeth Dole: Public Servant (Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1992), 75. back
  37. USNews and World Report, August 19, 1996, v 121, n7, p26. back
  38. Time, July 1, 1996, v 148, n2, p30. back