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The Woman Who Helped Build the Christian Right

How one activist helped turn evangelical women into the backbone of right-wing conservatism.

Since the 1960s, a resurgent feminist movement had shifted cultural conversations about gender, family, and sexual roles. Feminists helped enact new measures to protect women from domestic violence, expand their access to economic tools like credit cards, and ensure the availability of reproductive health care, believing that these changes would benefit all women. But for conservative Christian women who understood traditional gender roles to be God-given, and who cherished their roles as housewives, the feminist movement seemed like an existential threat. As far as LaHaye was concerned, this threat meant that conservative women had a special duty to “end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.”

In 1979, she founded Concerned Women for America (CWA), presenting a stark choice to the American woman: “She can join the feminists and spend her life with the family agitators who would destroy the ‘patriarchal’ system; or she can join those who are working to preserve Christian morality and the traditional family.” Apathy was not an option.

Of course, CWA was not the first or only group for conservative Christian women, though LaHaye sometimes claimed that it was. Phyllis Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum and STOP ERA in the early 1970s to rally conservative women on a variety of causes, most notably in opposition to the feminist-backed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, while activist evangelical women worked with these groups, Schlafly’s Catholicism limited her ability to reach evangelicals who were more ambivalent about politic involvement. LaHaye’s connections to evangelical women’s subculture allowed her to organize through purportedly apolitical spaces like churches and women’s conferences and to convince women that political activism was a logical extension of their duty to protect their families from harm.

CWA grew quickly. By 1983, the organization had Washington headquarters from which it trained professional lobbyists and helped to pioneer key legal strategies for the Christian Right. It was one of the first organizations to bring cases to the Supreme Court in defense of conservative Christians’ “religious freedom” to maintain tax-free institutions and define Christian school curricula independent of state standards. 

The efforts of hundreds of thousands of grassroots members supported the national organization’s work. By 1986, CWA had chapters in 49 states and even one on a U.S. military base in Germany. It grew through networks of evangelical churches and through the purportedly apolitical spaces of evangelical women’s culture. Its structure mirrored women’s Bible studies, hosted by churches or by community members who held meetings in their own homes.