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Femmes de pouvoir et luttes politiques

Conservative Women and Feminism in the United States: Between Hatred and Appropriation

Françoise Coste
p. 167-176


Le mouvement féministe a toujours suscité de fortes polémiques aux Etats-Unis et ses adversaires les plus virulents ont souvent été des femmes. L’antiféminisme féminin a été particulièrement vivace lors de la deuxième vague du féminisme, à partir des années 1970. Là, des femmes comme Phyllis Schlafly ont su utiliser des concepts traditionnels, notamment religieux, pour démontrer que les femmes étaient en réalité les membres les plus choyés de la société et pour saper les progrès des femmes américaines, comme le prouve l’échec de l’Equal Rights Amendment. Cet anti-féminisme féminin se poursuit dans la période contemporaine, marquée par de nombreux revers pour tes femmes américaines. Contrairement aux années 1970, les principales voix anti-féministes se réclament aujourd’hui du féminisme, tout en attaquant parallèlement les principes du féminisme contemporain, comme ceux dénonçant le système patriarcal ou les violences faites aux femmes. Pour ces intellectuelles conservatrices, le féminisme est devenu obsolète car l’égalité hommes-femmes a été conquise aux Etats-Unis. Les contradictions internes à l’antiféminisme féminin au sujet de la dichotomie supériorité/égalité entre les sexes sont donc évidentes

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  • 1 The women’s rights movement appeared in the United States in the 1840s in the wake of the abolition (...)

1The First Wave of feminism in the United States culminated in 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. After this great success, the movement went into decline until its Second Wave, in the 1960s and 1970s. The prevailing principle of the Second Wave was that of equality between men and women (Weedon 14). Feminist historian Estelle Β. Freedman thus defined the essence of feminism: "Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between men and women" (Freedman 7).1

  • 2 A proposed amendment must be ratified by three quarters of the state legislatures in the country, i (...)

2This focus on equality explains why 1960s and 1970s feminists centered their effort on another constitutional Amendment, the ERA—the Equal Rights Amendment. This Amendment read: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex" (Davis 29). The Amendment was adopted by Congress in 1972, but it was never ratified by enough states to be inscribed in the Constitution.2 This failure was largely due to the activism of anti-feminist conservative groups whose leaders were mostly women. Today, these 1970s anti-feminist leaders have been replaced by a new generation of conservative women who continue the historical fight of the American Right against feminism.

3The fundamental notion behind the feminist movement, that of gender equality, also lies at the core of conservative anti-feminism. Comparing the interpretation of the idea of gender equality by anti-feminist women in the 1970s and by anti-feminist women today is very revealing: it shows that even though American conservatism has consistently opposed feminism for 40 years, it has failed to do so in any coherent ideological manner.

Anti-Feminism in the 1970s

4In the United States, anti-feminism is mostly based on traditional Christian values. For Christian conservatives, feminism violates a famous passage in the Epistles of Paul, in which Paul says: "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Corinthians 11:3). In other words, the hierarchical structure of the Church, where God has authority over Jesus, is paralleled by the hierarchical structure of the couple, where the husband has authority over his wife (Grudem 207-208).

5As a result, the overwhelming majority of women who took the lead in the fight against the ERA in the 1970s were housewives who called for a submissive role for women. The 1973 antifeminism best-seller The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan insisted on the idea that "God ordained man to be the head of the family, its president". Marabel Morgan’s advice to her female readers was therefore simple: "Your husband is what he is. Accept him as that.... A Total Woman caters to her man’s special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex, or sports" (Morgan 60, 57).

6It would be a mistake, however, to see in this acceptance of submission a sign of inferiority. If these women rejected feminism, it was not because they thought women were inferior to men. On the contrary, they stressed the superiority of women over men. Here lies the fundamental distinction between the feminists and anti-feminists of the 1970s: according to feminists, the ERA was necessary because it would change a status quo defined by the inferior position of women in society; whereas according to anti-feminist women, the ERA would alter a status quo defined by the superior position of women. For feminists, passing from inferiority to equality would be an extraordinary progress, but for anti-feminists, passing from superiority to equality would actually be a regression.

7How could these anti-feminist leaders be so certain of the superior position of women in the 1970s? Here again, their demonstration was grounded in Christian values. The many writings of Phyllis Schlafly, the most famous opponent of the ERA, offer an excellent illustration of this stance. According to Schlafly’s reading of history, in the United States, the most "basic unit of society" is the family (Schlafly 1972, 89) and the most important members of society arc logically those who can have babies, that is, women. Thus, men have put women "on a pedestal" (Schlafly 1972, 90). From this biological and historical evolution results the superiority of women in today’s society:

Our Judeo-Christian civilization has developed the law and custom that, since women bear the physical consequences of the sex act, men must be required to pay in other ways. These laws and customs decree that a man must carry his share by physical protection and financial support of his children and of the woman who bears his children. (Schlafly 1972, 89)

8Tellingly, Schlafly particularly insists on the material well-being of American women. For her:

[women’s superiority] is not... just a matter of opening doors for women, seeing that they are seated first, carrying their bundles... Such good manners arc merely the superficial evidences of a total attitude toward women that expresses itself in many more tangible ways, such as money....
In America, a man’s first significant purchase (after a car) is a diamond for his bride, and the largest financial investment of his life is a home for her to live in. American husbands work hours of overtime to keep their wives in fashion, and to pay premiums on their life insurance policies to provide for their widow’s comfort. (Schlafly 1972, 90-91)

9The supposedly extremely fortunate lives of American women render feminism completely incomprehensible for Phyllis Schlafly: "The truth is that American women never had it so good. Why should we lower ourselves to ‘equal rights’ when we already have the status of special privilege?" (Schlafly 1972, 93).

10The dichotomy between "superiority" and "equality" established by Schlafly reverberated throughout the whole anti-feminism movement of the 1970s. Another famous conservative woman, Midge Decter, expressed similar disbelief at the emergence of feminism in the United States:

Using the pretext of the demand for equality, a group of the luckiest, healthiest, most prosperous, best educated, and most kindly treated young women in the history of the world declared open warfare on men. (Decter 1994, 99)

11Like Phyllis Schlafly, Midge Decter also rejected the ERA on the ground that it would actually hurt women by depriving them of the outstanding treatment they receive in American society:

Marriage and the family are institutions answering primarily to the needs of women and invented for their benefit. It is in their nature to be monogamous, and to need protection and defense and support for themselves and their children. In exchange, they agree to supply men with the comforts of the home...: a place to be oneself, to hide from the pressures of the world outside, some easy companionship, children with which to claim the future, and forgiveness for weakness. It’s actually, when you think of it, a pretty good deal all around. (Decter 2001, 134)

12A recurrent subtext in such descriptions of the superior position of women is the idea that women’s privileges would not exist without the sacrifices of men. The female anti-feminism of the 1970s is consequently imbued with an unmistakable cult of masculinity. In this sense, the core argument of feminism (women are oppressed by a patriarchal society and gender equality must be achieved) is completely overturned: since society has given women a superior position, men are victims. Midge Decter, for example, presents men as the forgotten casualty of feminism:

When it was said to and about middle class American women that their husbands beat them, cow them, and kick them around..., not a single man stood up to say: "Wait just a moment, I have been working hard and under considerable stress to support my wife and family. Is that a just thing to say about me? I have tried to be decent and responsible, and this is the thanks I get?" (Decter 1981, 22)

13Phyllis Schlafly goes even further. For her, feminism is nothing but "an assault on the right to be a man who is masculine" (Schlafly 2001, 39). Interestingly, Schlafly has managed to adapt her 1970s anti-gender equality rhetoric to the contemporary period, especially after 9/11. Thus, she wrote in 2001:

One of the unintended consequences of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center... was the dashing of feminist hopes to make America a gender-neutral or androgynous society. New York City’s firemen dared to charge up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center. The firefighters’ death tally was: men 343, women zero.
President George W. Bush sent our special forces to the rugged and remote Afghan hills and caves to get the terrorists... Fighting the Taliban is a job for real men... America is fortunate that the warrior culture has survived thirty years of feminist fantasies. (Schlafly 2001, 38-39)

14Thus, the divergence between feminists and anti-feminists in the 1970s went further than mere policy disagreements. Women like Schlafly or Decter were so convinced of the superior status of women that their aim was not just to criticize feminism. It was rather to discredit its very reason for being. In their eyes, feminism was not just misguided, it should not even exist in the first place, it was utterly unnecessary.

Anti-Feminism today

15Anti-feminism went through a deep transformation in the United States during the 1980s, after the election of a conservative president, Ronald Reagan. His administration and those of his Republican successors (George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush) marked significant setbacks for American women (be it on abortion rights, pay discrimination, welfare benefits and so on). This period was labelled a "backlash against women" by essayist Susan Faludi in her famous 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. According to Faludi, since the 1980s, the US has been living a period of acute anti-feminism. As in the 1970s, this wave of anti-feminism is mostly led by women. But Faludi deems this movement much more intense than that of the 1970s. Its core argument is to blame feminism itself for all the contemporary problems of women: "Identifying feminism as women’s enemy only furthers the ends of a backlash against women’s equality, simultaneously deflecting attention from the backlash’s central role and recruiting women to attack their own cause" (Faludi 10).

16This evolution is due to the passing of the torch to a new generation of activists. The women Faludi calls "the old antifeminist warrior queens" (Faludi xii)—like Phyllis Schlafly—have been replaced by younger voices. These younger women have grown of age in a country deeply changed by the gains of Second-Wave feminism. While Phyllis Schlafly or Marabel Morgan were housewives, contemporary anti-feminists (like Camille Paglia or Christina Hoff Sommers) are often academics who are single or have no children. Consequently these women cannot dismiss feminism outright. The starting point of their argumentation is to accept feminism as a fait accompli. They dramatically depart from 1970s antifeminism by presenting themselves as committed feminists. Camille Paglia calls herself an "anti-feminist feminist" (Bean 23). Christina Hoff Sommers, the author of the most influential anti-feminist book of the 1990s, Who Stole Feminism? (1994), explains in her introduction: "I have been moved to write this book because I am a feminist" (Hoff Sommers 18). Even arch-conservative Sarah Palin paid tribute to Democratic feminist icons when she was tapped by John McCain to be his running mate in 2008:

  • 3 Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to ever be present on a presidential ticket, when Democratic (...)

I think as well today of two other women who came before me in national elections. I can’t begin this great effort without honoring the achievements of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and of course Senator Hillary Clinton, who showed such determination and grace in her presidential campaign.3 It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America but it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all. (McCain and Palin)

17Clearly, the feminist label is not a shameful one anymore for contemporary conservative women. Yet, this appropriation of the term ‘feminism’ should not conceal a real hatred on their part toward the feminist movement itself. The heiresses of Phyllis Schlafly and Midge Decter are women who call themselves feminists while systematically denigrating the feminist movement at the same time ("faux feminists" according to Susan Faludi) (qtd. in Fox-Genovese 31).

18Their earnest rejection of feminism rests on the conviction that traditional feminism is completely discredited today. The culprits are feminists themselves. More specifically, these new anti-feminists happily partake in the cliché that feminists are shrill, unhappy, and radical. Christina Hoff Sommers thus describes the contemporary members of the movement: "All indications are that the new crop of young feminist ideologues coming out of our nation’s colleges are even angrier, more resentful, and more indifferent to the truth than their mentors" (Hoff Sommers 18). Anti-feminist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese similarly stresses the supposed intolerance of the movement: "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" (Fox-Genovese 30). As for Camille Paglia, she described feminism in 2008 as "prissy, victim-mongering, philistine" and "whining" (Paglia)—a term Sarah Palin also used when discussing Hillary Clinton’s comments about the heavy criticism offered by the press about her presidential campaign in 2008: "When I hear a statement like that, coming from a woman candidate, with any kind of perceived whine, about that excess criticism..., I think that doesn’t do us any good, women in politics" (qtd. in Breslau).

19Another discrediting factor of feminism, according to these conservative women, is its inner contradiction: in their eyes, the real anti-feminism is to be found within traditional feminism itself because its ideology is rooted in hostility towards the majority of American women. This counter-intuitive argument is well summarized by Christina Hoff Sommers:

That is the corrosive paradox of gender feminism’s misandrist stance: no group of women can wage war on men without at the same time denigrating the women who respect those men... In the end, the gender feminist is always forced to show her disappointment and annoyance with the women who are to be found in the camp of the enemy. Misandry moves on to misogyny. (Hoff Sommers 256)

20Once the lack of credibility of traditional feminists has been established, the idea that feminism has become pointless and obsolete logically follows. According to contemporary conservative women, the main goal of feminism—that of gender equality—has actually been achieved. In other words, while 1970s anti-feminists viewed equality as a setback for women who already enjoyed a privileged situation in American society, contemporary anti-feminists view gender equality as a demand from the past which has been happily satisfied today.

21The idea that women and men are now equals is omnipresent in contemporary anti-feminist writings. This renders the dynamics of the backlash described by Susan Faludi twofold: at its core, the conservative backlash is a movement aimed at reducing women’s rights; but this stance is never acknowledged explicitly and publicly as, in their writings and public speeches, the leaders of the backlash actually celebrate women’s rights and describe them as successfully conquered. Christina Hoff Sommers offers a good example of an anti-feminist woman who negates the existence of the backlash by proclaiming the advent of gender equality during the 1980s:

By most measures, the eighties were a time of rather spectacular gains by American women—in education, in wages, and in such traditionally male professions as business, law, and medicine... According to Susan Faludi, the eighties were the backlash decade... This view, inconveniently, does not square with the facts. (Hoff Sommers 238)

22Since feminism is supposed to have won and gender equality has been achieved, the negative diagnostic drawn by feminists about the place of women in society is now erroneous. This particularly means that patriarchy does not exist anymore, it has been vanquished. Such a stance leads today’s anti-feminists to reject one of the key tenets of feminism—the idea that violence in general and rape in particular constitute the main tool of patriarchal oppression. Christina Hoff Sommers considers that the oppression of women by men is "mythic" (Hoff Sommers 45) and that feminists manipulate rape statistics to advance their agenda:

High rape numbers serve the gender feminists by promoting the belief that American culture is sexist and misogynist. But the common assumption that rape is a manifestation of misogyny is open to question... This country has more than its share of violent males; statistically we must expect them to gratify themselves at the expense of people weaker than themselves, male or female; and so they do. (Hoff Sommers 222, 225)

23So, for Hoff Sommers, rape amounts to nothing but a biased and ideological interpretation of an immemorial and inevitable human phenomenon. This minimization of the rape problem is widespread. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, for example, claims that the extent of anti-women violence "ha[s] been wildly exaggerated" (Fox-Genovese 163) while Camille Paglia goes even further since she blames rape on feminism itself—as if rape had not existed before the 1960s: "If you get raped, if you get beat up in a dark alley in a street, it’s okay. That was part of the risk of feminism" (qtd. in Bean 31). It would be a mistake to see in such statements the mere desire of conservative academics to shock their left-leaning colleagues. The idea that there is no need to protect women because all their problems have been solved has serious concrete consequences. One interesting illustration of this problem is the tenure of Sarah Palin as Governor of Alaska, the state with the worst rate of rape and domestic violence in the United States. Under Palin’s administration, the situation actually worsened after she dismissed Walt Monegan, the state’s public-safety commissioner who had made the fight against sexual assault his priority through the expansion of the state programs aimed at helping rape victims—a request flatly rejected by Sarah Palin (Mock).

24Contemporary anti-feminism is therefore clearly grounded on the denial that women encounter obstacles in American society. But, rather interestingly, today’s anti-feminist women combine this denial with the admission that problems did exist in the past. Christina Hoff Sommers wrote for example: "A surprising number of clever and powerful feminists share the conviction that American women still live in a patriarchy" (Hoff Sommers 19). The presence of the word ‘still’ in this statement betrays Hoff Sommer’s acknowledgement that patriarchy did exist at some point in the past. So gender equality, although it exists now and although it renders feminism obsolete, is only a recent phenomenon. This one concession to traditional feminism explains why today’s anti-feminist women think they can rightfully claim the feminist label.


25Thus appears the fundamental contradiction between 1970s anti-feminism and contemporary anti-feminism. For 1970s anti-feminist women, feminism was unnecessary because women already were the most privileged members of society, so they did not need to be liberated. Today, anti-feminist women agree that feminism is not necessary, but they do so because they think feminism has won. Since women have achieved gender equality, they do not need to be liberated anymore. This switch from "not needing to be liberated" to "not needing to be liberated anymore" is the Achilles’ heel of the conservative movement: how can a movement deemed unnecessary in the 1970s be celebrated as successful today?

261970s anti-feminism may seem dated and overly religious today. But at least, it was grounded in a coherent worldview and clearly animated by a sincere sense of fear about the situation of traditional housewives in a society where women would be expected to be more independent. Today, the arguments put forth by antifeminism are much more debatable. For one, the credibility of its most famous leaders can easily be undermined by suspicions of hypocrisy and selfishness. Women like Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Sarah Palin enjoy great careers made possible by the real gains of feminism over the last 40 years. These women derive from the fact that they have indeed become the equals of men in their respective fields the conviction that all women in all segments of society have benefited from the same progress. The feminist fight may be over for them but it is not the case for the majority of American women—especially poor and minority women. Besides, from an ideological point of view, their demonstration lacks coherence. By celebrating the advent of gender equality, they do admit that feminism was once an essential movement but they absolutely never explain how the conquest of equality for women actually came about. Not only are they unable to really demonstrate that gender equality is a concrete reality in the United States, they are also completely silent about the how and when of this success for American women. Indeed, providing details on this question would inexorably lead them to pay tribute to Second-Wave feminists, the very same activists deemed delusional by the founders of conservative anti-feminism in the 1970s. American anti-feminism has consequently put itself in a philosophical corner, the sign that it is harder and harder for this movement to remain relevant in the 21st century.

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1 The women’s rights movement appeared in the United States in the 1840s in the wake of the abolitionist movement. In 1848, pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention which led to the adoption of the Declaration of Sentiments, a text which focused on the political inferiority of women and demanded the right to vote. The fight for suffrage took more than 70 years and this victory was interpreted by many as the end of the movement. The peculiar dynamics of American feminism explains why it is often described through the wave metaphor. As Flora Davis explains in her history of contemporary feminism: "The wave analogy is helpful because it underscores the fact that the women’s movement didn’t die after 1920, though it did lose much of its momentum. The analogy also reminds us that major social changes tend to happen in waves. First, there’s a lot of intense activity and some aspects of life are transformed; then, when the public has absorbed as much as it can stand, reaction sets in. Stability reigns for a while, and if there’s a strong backlash, some of the changes may be undone. Eventually, if vital issues remain unresolved, another wave of activism arises" (Davis 11). This is what happened after the publication in 1963 of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, a seminal work which stressed the deep "malaise of the white middleclass suburban housewife" (Dicker 66-67). In 1966, Friedan was instrumental in the creation of the most famous feminist organization of the Second Wave, the National Organization for Women (NOW).

2 A proposed amendment must be ratified by three quarters of the state legislatures in the country, i.e. 38 out of 50. Only 35 states had ratified the ERA by 1979, the deadline set by Congress in 1972.

3 Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to ever be present on a presidential ticket, when Democratic candidate Walter Mondale chose her as his vice-presidential candidate in 1984. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to seriously compete for the presidential nomination of any party when she ran in the 2008 Democratic primaries—which she lost to Barack Obama.

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Bibliographical reference

Françoise Coste, Conservative Women and Feminism in the United States: Between Hatred and AppropriationCaliban, 27 | 2010, 167-176.

Electronic reference

Françoise Coste, Conservative Women and Feminism in the United States: Between Hatred and AppropriationCaliban [Online], 27 | 2010, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Françoise Coste

Université Toulouse-Le Mirail

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