Their response exposes how many women in America are — and have always been — driven more by political beliefs than sisterly solidarity, a trend not limited to the political right.
Part of the “Women for Kavanaugh” movement traces its roots through conservative anti-feminism. For as long as there have been feminist movements in the United States, there have been women stepping forward to say “not in my name.” To them, the most important women’s issue has been keeping the government out of decisions tied to families and child rearing.
In the early 20th century, female activists successfully lobbied the federal government to pass legislation on behalf of infant and maternal health. These efforts sparked a fierce counterattack from what historians have dubbed “conservative maternalists.” These women organized to beat back the feminist campaigns, believing they had a duty as mothers to attack such legislation.
Women like Elizabeth Lowell Putnam of Massachusetts worked through organizations such as the Committee of Sentinels of the Republic and the Women’s National League to Protect our Homes and Children. These groups believed they had a moral obligation to oppose developments like the Children’s Bureau and government-funded prenatal care, because they saw such efforts as unwanted intrusions by an overly aggressive state into their domain, the home.
By stepping into politics in this way — as protectors of their brethren — women have, time and again, foiled progressive efforts at every level of American politics. They have positioned themselves as political guardians of family well-being. These activists asserted that women’s God-prescribed role in society grants them authority in debates over government measures to improve family and community life. They succeed because many Americans share their deeply ingrained beliefs about women’s fundamental differences from men, and unique temperamental and instinctive capacity to best address these issues.
Conservative women’s vigilance applied to threats broadly conceived. In the 1950s, anti-communist housewives and mothers successfully red-baited teachers, school administrators and government officials out of office. Bureaucrats and subversives, they argued, sought to undermine the power of the community and parental rights with experimental pedagogy such as social studies and “new math.”
These efforts reflected how, in the last half of the 20th century, conservative women formed the backbone of the modern religious right. So ardent were women in the burgeoning movement that National Review’s Russell Kirk called women “the conservative sex.”
Their contributions helped to define sex, gender and “family values” as the core concerns of an increasingly vocal movement. Beverly LaHaye, who founded Concerned Women for America (CWA) in 1979, declared it the religious duty of every conservative Christian woman to spread the message that “feminism does not speak for all women of America.” Women like LaHaye, who happily identified as housewives, saw second-wave feminist critiques of patriarchal family models as direct insults and even threats to their own freedom to choose a lifestyle. Evangelical advice author Marabel Morgan, though less politically engaged than LaHaye, expressed her worry that contemporary feminists had “made the woman at home feel like a dodo."
These concerns animated one of the most successful political campaigns in the past half-century: Phyllis Schlafly’s long-shot push against the Equal Rights Amendment. Under the banner of S.T.O.P. ERA (Stop Taking Our Privileges, ERA), Schlafly organized tens of thousands of women to thwart what had seemed like certain ratification of the amendment.
Today, the same women who worked with LaHaye and Schlafly, along with the next generation, are fiercely defending Kavanaugh’s reputation. They #StandwithBrett, joining the chorus of denunciations against the Senate “circus,” but also voicing their defense of Kavanaugh’s “honor.” On Thursday morning, CWA hosted a “Women for Kavanaugh” rally featuring speakers from several conservative women’s organizations. They raised concerns about due process and the presumption of innocence, but also opposed any deeper investigation into Kavanaugh, insisting that he be confirmed “no later than” Friday.
They understand that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would be a serious win for their conservative agenda. Conservative women’s organizations have worked for decades to undermine access to abortion and limit government power. They dream of a Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade and keeps the government out of their lives and communities. CWA has been particularly active in the courts, pioneering conservative Christian legal strategy in cases on religious freedom, home-schooling and gay rights since the early 1980s.
The overriding priority of appointing conservative judges has even helped cement the somewhat uneasy alliance between conservative women and President Trump. CWA President Penny Nance voiced serious concerns about Trump’s candidacy in 2016. She has since, however, found much to praise about the president, including, crucially, his nomination of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year. Now, with the understanding that the nation needs #AnotherGreatJustice, Nance has thrown the considerable weight of her organization behind Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
For millions of women today, support for Kavanaugh means working to undermine the claims of his accusers, putting politics ahead of women’s safety. Which is not to say they are the only ones who have done so. At times, liberal women have been willing to cast aside fighting sexual misconduct when it advances priorities dear to their hearts.
Consider President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Revered feminist Gloria Steinem defended Clinton, arguing that his conduct could not even be called “sexual harassment,” but instead a “clumsy sexual pass.” Vanity Fair columnist Marjorie Williams marveled at feminists’ “hypocrisy and powers of denial” in turning against Clinton’s accusers in favor of “the most reliably supportive president they’ve ever had.” Feminists’ support for Clinton appalled Christian conservatives. They saw themselves as champions of sexual morality fighting back against liberals who embraced sexual licentiousness even to the point of defending harassment.
Excoriating their hypocrisy, Barbara Ledeen, executive director for policy at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) pointed out that the “CEO of a corporation wouldn’t have had time to pack up his briefcase before being fired” if he faced similar allegations to Clinton.
Today, however, the sides have flipped. Conservatives feel compelled to defend their man against allegations of sexual misconduct because of other priorities.
Although they have abandoned it, conservatives still understand the impulse to condemn those charged with sexual misdeeds. On Thursday, IWF’s senior policy analyst Patrice Lee Onwuka observed as much. But rather than worrying about hypocrisy as conservatives did in the 1990s, she said, “There is something about justice and equality, and there’s something about fairness that’s important, and that’s at risk today.”
As the nation convulses in yet another #MeToo moment reminiscent of the 2016 election, one has to wonder how many credible claims of bad behavior can be overlooked. For conservative women, the number appears to be high absent irrefutable evidence of misdeeds — at least when the accused is a conservative.
And while more and more liberal women have been willing to hold liberal men like Al Franken and John Conyers accountable for their sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era, their record is still far too spotty. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) remains in office, as well as an official with the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic nominee for state attorney general despite charges that he abused an ex-girlfriend. And Franken still counts liberal women among his defenders.
But we must decide whether we can afford to continue to treat sexual misconduct as a purely partisan issue. Do we want to support women only when their claims align with our political goals? It’s easy to criticize conservative women for their failure to stand behind Kavanaugh’s accusers, but they are no more hypocritical than their liberal counterparts. We all have to decide: Is the issue of sexual misconduct important enough to bridge the partisan divide, or do we #BelieveWomen only when doing so serves our broader interests?