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“Spiritual Warfare”: Cultural Fundamentalism and the Equal Rights Amendment

  • Donald G. Mathews


The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution was to have been the next prize for women after winning the vote in 1920. This agenda—first set in 1923—was not accepted by many women or most members of the U.S. Congress until 1972. During the long generation that separated the conception and birth of the ERA, there came also the gestation of modern feminism, which differed from the earlier suffragist ideology in its understanding of gender. Suffragists, for the most part, worked within traditional definitions, insisting that complex and vexing social issues required a woman's touch; women's uniquely gendered experiences should be added to those of men to solve modern problems.



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1. I am grateful for the criticism of Betty DeBerg, Clark Gilpin, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Glenn Miller, Philip Mulder, and Grant Wacker; and for that of the seminar of Jack Bernhardt, Carole Ann Caldwell, Amy De Rogatis, Joel Elliott, Patrick Rivers, Houston Roberson, and Susan Rogers, all of whom responded to this manuscript in its various manifestations and who will probably wish I had changed the final draft even more than I did. I am grateful to Jane De Hart, coauthor with me of a book cited below, for conversations that long ago stimulated thinking about the women discussed in this article; and also to Roxie Nicholson for her indispensible help in interviewing women partisans on both sides of the ratification issue in the critical early stages of our joint project. Conversation with Elizabeth Farrior Buford helped reformulate certain questions, ask new ones, and refine the answers of both. Jason de Chateaubriard contributed significantly in characteristic Gallic sophistication.

For discussions of the Equal Rights Amendment, see Berry, Mary Frances, Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women's Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Mansbridge, Jane J., Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Mathews, Donald G. and De Hart, Jane Sherron, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA: A State and the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). See also Degler, Carl N., At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 6685, 144-226, 279-418; Evans, Sara M., Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press, 1989), 67174; Evans, Sara M., Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979).

2. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 26-27,79-86.

3. Some students could explain religious opposition as an irrational reaction by women who believed that the Bible dictated resistance to feminism. See Arlington, Theodore S. and Kyle, Patricia A., “Equal Rights Activists in North Carolina,” Signs 3 (Spring 1978): 666-80; Brady, David W. and Tedin, Kent L., “Ladies in Pink: Religion and Political Ideology in the Anti-ERA Movement,” Social Science Quarterly 36 (March 1976): 564-75; Mueller, Carol and Dimieri, Thomas, “The Structure of Belief Systems among Contending ERA Activists,” Social Forces 60 (March 1982): 657-73; and Tedin, Kent L., “Religious Preference and Pro/Anti Activism on the Equal Rights Amendment Issue,” Pacific Sociological Review 21 (January 1978): 5567.

4. Through this complex process, children learn the meaning of anatomical differences by inferences taught by tradition and propriety in such a way as to make those inferences appear to be concretely real, absolutely natural, and morally imperative. On socialization, see Frieze, Irene H. and others, eds., Women and Sex Roles: A Social Psychological Perspective (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 95134; and Connell, R. W., Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987), 42-54,7887,111-42.

5. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 164. There is a brief section in this book on “cultural fundamentalism.” Since publication, however, I have refined and developed my analysis to include greater attention to the kind of language spoken by Fundamentalists, the functions of such language, and how that language reflects that spoken by masculinizing Fundamentalists studied by DeBerg, Betty A. in Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990). Indeed, DeBerg's book and her letter to me in response to my request for criticism substantially prodded me beyond the position articulated in the book. In the process of renewal, I was also aided in reflection by the works of Peter Berger, Kathleen Boone, Mary Douglas, and Bruce Lawrence, cited below in appropriate places. In addition, I have explored at greater length the way in which symbols function differently for Fundamentalists and modernists and attempted to enter the debate about the nature of Fundamentalism beyond the less ambitious goal of explaining the mentaliti of antifeminist women.

6. This approach meant contacting the most accessible people, those living in the same state (North Carolina) as me, where one of the most significant ratification battles took place. A list of interviews—all told, more than 100 of them—are in the appendix to Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 272-75. For a discussion of anomaly, purity, and danger, see Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

7. The letters and printed campaign documents examined are in the Samuel James Ervin, Jr., papers in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the ERA Collection, North Carolina Department of Archives and History (NCDAH): the papers of J. Allen Adams, A. Hartwell Campbell, David H. Diamont, John R. Gamble, Peter W. Hairston, Cecil Hill, Edward S. Holmes, Robert B. Jones, Larry E. Leonard, Ernest B. Messer, Robie Nash, Ned R. Smith, and Margaret Tennille.

8. See Evans, Personal Politics.

9. Brown, Barbara and others, “The Equal Rights Amendment: A Constitutional Basis for Equal Rights for Women,” Yale Law Journal 80 (April 1971): 871985 , and esp. 872,885,889,890; see also 873,876,882,884,893.

10. The nature of the challenge to conventional gender categories can be understood in the feminist transformation of the word “ladies” from a compliment into an insult. Even the most accessible level of feminist analysis can remain inaccessible to men who insist on complimenting women by referring to them as “lovely ladies.” The exasperation of women at the remark suggests how it poisons social intercourse. Even men who think of themselves as allies of women on such issues as reproductive rights can fail to sense the implications of the language they use and become enraged when women are offended by it. The offense lies in the enforcement of stereotype through canons of behavior rooted in the subordination of women as “ladies.” Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyoming) scolded a group: “I get tired of watching shrugs and kind of looking up at the ceiling when [someone] says something courteous.” The (Raleigh, North Carolina) News and Observer, September 20,1990,5A.

11. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 124-51, 225.

12. Ibid., 144.

13. Brown and others, “The Equal Rights Amendment,” 885.

14. Quoted in Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 150.

15. Ibid., 144.

16. There is a difference between self-consciously adopting a position because it is one that authentically religious women would take and adopting a position the implications of which would ultimately benefit women. The former posture is not more principled or religious than the latter, but it does privilege the quality of being religious over the modernist manipulation of (sacred) gender categories by political action. This is not to say that women who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment were “more seriously religious” than those who supported it; there is no way of establishing the matter. However, in one telephone survey, it was clear that women who thought of themselves as being especially religious (more religious than most people) were least likely to support the Equal Rights Amendment. See the survey by the Institute for Research in Social Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “North Carolina Women,” November 1978, in the institute library. One of my critics suggested that a strategy alternative to the one I have followed would address the religious character of both sides, indicating, as she suggested, a cultural modernism to counterbalance the cultural fundamentalism defined here. This was an excellent suggestion, but one resisted primarily in the interests of space, and also because religion played a different role in the self-definition of each side. Proponents did not believe ratification (a restricted goal) to be a religious issue; opponents did. Proponents were more creative religiously than were opponents; both sides would probably agree, since innovation has been thought of historically and psychologically as heresy

17. A useful discussion of modernity is that in Lawrence, Bruce B., Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), esp. 43-89, 96-101. For a discussion of the reasons ratification lost, see Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 124-51. The politics involved in achieving passage were thought at first to be virtually consensual: reasons for supporting passage of the ERA were—especially after the civil rights movement of the 1960's—thought to be so self-evident that proponents were unprepared for a long battle. Ratificationists soon confessed their naivete and for over a decade wrestled with the issue, in the process building one of the best pro-ERA lobbies in the country. Six times they brought ERA to the General Assembly and six times they lost because they could not elect enough allies in the crescendo of conservatism during the 1970's. They also lost because equality could be made to appear dangerous to women and because it would cost too much; and it lost because not all women wanted passage, a fact that could be exploited to legitimize the other reasons.

18. Cohen, Abner, Two-Dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974; repr., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 54-55. On 54-64, Cohen discusses the political and symbolic dimensions of selfhood—how symbols convey threats to self—and urges both anthropologists and students of politics to understand that “The battle for the maintenance of selfhood in the face of the continuous subversive processes operating in society is one of the perennial problems of man” (58). The author is not saying that anti-ERA women were “more emotional” than ratificationists—they probably were not. He is saying that the emotion expended in response to certain aspects of the amendment was confusing to both scholars and ratificationists. That emotion was not to be dismissed by simply saying that opponents were hysterical “screaming women.” Such bias is dysfunction, want to,[but]Authenticallyd

19. See Arlington and Kyle, “Equal Rights Activists in North Carolina,” 666-80; Anti and Tedin, “Ladies in Pink,” 564-75; Mueller and Tedin,“Religious55-67. refe Structure of Belief Systems among Contending ERA Activists,” 657-73; Tedin, “Religious Preference and Pro/Anti Activism on the Equal Rights Amendment Issue,” 55-67.

20. This is inferred from the insights of Douglas, Purity and Danger.

21. Felsenthal, Carol, The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority: The Biography of Phyllis Schlafly (New York: Doubleday, 1981).

22. One example was the plea of Mrs. Carl A. Embler to Senator Cecil Hill, February 17,1977: “A few women want to be men, [but] don't force us all to be one. Please!” See Hill papers, ERA Collection, NCDAH. Authentically religious people, according to such women, would not repudiate the sacred template of a gendered reality.

23. See Arlington and Kyle, “Equal Rights Activists in North Carolina,” 666-80; Brady and Tedin, “Ladies in Pink,” 564-75; and Tedin, “Religious Preference and Pro/Anti Activism on the Equal Rights Amendment Issue,” 55-67.

24. Boone, Kathleen C., The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 41.

25. Ibid., 9.

26. Grant Wacker writes in his essay “The Demise of Biblical Civilization” that “the assumption that historical process is the bed of human perception, that knowledge is the product of a fluid social process, had [by the beginning of the twentieth century] come to be the hallmark of the modern mind.” See Hatch, Nathan and Noll, Mark, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 125.

27. See Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), esp. 118-23.

28. Machen, J. Gresham, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923; repr., 1977), 125.

29. See, for example, Furniss, Norman F., The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954); and Sandeen, Ernest R., The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

30. See Marsden, George M., Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991); Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture; and DeBerg, Ungodly Women.

31. DeBerg, Ungodly Women, esp. 119-53.

32. See esp. Lawrence, Defenders of God.

33. Berger, Peter, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967; Anchor Books Edition, 1969), 95; see also 85, 86,89-90,93-100.

34. Douglas, Mary, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Random House, Vintage Books Edition, 1973), 4252,190-95. Douglas relies upon Basil Bernstein's work to discuss the restricted code in positional families and the elaborated code in personal families. The last quotation is Douglas quoting Bernstein (46).

35. Ibid., 49-55. Ascribing such authority-mindedness to Fundamentalists is supported by Owen, Dennis E., Wald, Kenneth D., and Hill, Samuel S., “Authoritarian or Authority-Minded? The Cognitive Commitments of Fundamentalists and the Christian Right,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 1 (Winter 1991): 73100.

36. DeBerg, Ungodly Women; see notes 30 and 31.

37. The phrase about “militant exposure” appears in Dollar, George, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1973), and is quoted by Whelan, Timothy D., ‘Talwell and Fundamentalism,“ Christianity and Crisis 47 (October 12, 1987): 328-31, esp. 330. But see also Lawrence's helpful and broadly informed analysis in Defenders of God, esp. 78-81, 100-101.

38. Hofstadter, Richard, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1965), esp. 6788. See also Clabaugh, Gary K., Thunder on the Right: The Protestant Fundamentalists (Chicago: Nelson, Hall, 1974); and Jorstad, Erling, The Politics of Doomsday: Fundamentalists of the Far Right (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970).

39. See Marsden, George M., “Preachers of Paradox: The Religious New Right in Historical Perspective,” in Religion and America: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age, ed. Douglas, Mary and Tipton, Steven M. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 150-68. Marsden is correct in emphasizing the paradoxes of New Right Fundamentalism, but his title suggests that Fundamentalists preach paradox rather than personify it. See also liebman, Robert C., “The Making of the New Christian Right,” in The New Christian Right: Mobilization and Legitimation, ed. Liebman, Robert C. and Wuthnow, Robert (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine Publishing Company, 1983), 227-38, and other articles in the book. See also Bromley, David G. and Shupe, Anson, eds., New Christian Politics (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984); and Hunter, James Davison, “Conservative Protestantism,” in The Sacred in a Secular Age: Toward Revision in the Scientific Study of Religion, ed. Hammond, Phillip E. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 150-66.

40. Boone, The Bible Tells Them So, 60, quoting Falwell, Jerry, Listen America! (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), 131.

41. The metaphor serves triple duty: it emphasizes the sacredness of marriage (“as Christ is the head”), the intimate relationship between Christ and His church (linking a familial relationship with a theological one), and the assumption by the husband of the Christ-like mediation of God to the wife through sacrificial love.

42. This was forcefully brought home in an interview with a highly articulate Fundamentalist woman on August 21, 1979. Her thinking about the Equal Rights Amendment included references to the metaphor mentioned here. Transcription in possession of the author. See Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 152-80.

43. The presence of sacrificial love between husband and wife, it could be argued, is so subversive of the idea that husbands are the “head” of their wives as to render the passage irrelevant in defending the submissiveness of wives to husbands.

44. Interview of August 21, 1979. Transcription in possession of the author.

45. If gender is a human creation, it can be recreated. For Falwell, gender as defined by the inerrant Text reveals feminism to be a false religion that promises an illusory salvation (liberation) through the destruction of sacred relationships. Fundamentalist women's response would not imply a defense of men and their having fulfilled their part of the marital covenant; many women who opposed feminism believed that men had not in fact done so. Actually, it could be argued that Falwell and the woman quoted above are writing two opposing texts. See Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 167-72.

46. Mary Christie to Robie Nash, February 21, 1975, in Robie Nash Papers of the ERA Collection, NCDAH.

47. Mrs. Joyce Burgess to Senator Samuel James Ervin, Jr., February 1973, Senator Samuel James Ervin, Jr., papers, SHC. See also the letter of (the Reverend) E. T. Isely to Ervin, February 5,1977, where the minister makes the same point. Ervin papers, SHC.

48. //Born again Christians” were those who deserved to be allowed to remain secure in their “rightful place as ordained by God.” See Mrs. James Safley to Robie Nash, April 8,1975; see also Mrs. Linda Kerkman to Robert A. Jones, in the Robert A. Jones papers of the ERA Collection, NCDAH.

49. One likened proponents to the “atheist responsible for removing all Bible reading and prayer from our schools.” See constituent letters to Peter Hair-ston in his papers in the ERA Collection, NCDAH. See also Mrs. Evelyn M. Bertchett to Senator Samuel James Ervin, Jr., October 3,1970, Ervin papers, SHC; Mildred Abram to Representative Margaret Keesee, January 22, 1973, in the latter's private papers.

50. (The Reverend) Julian M. Motley to George W. Miller, Jr., April 10, 1975, in Miller's private papers.

51. As reported by Jane Sherron De Hart, participant observation.

52. Mrs. Cyril Bird in Our Hope 16 (May 1910), 706, as quoted in DeBerg, Ungodly Women, 50 (emphasis added).

53. STOP-ERA campaign literature seemed to accuse feminism of a crime against nature; one broadside (in the possession of the author) used a slogan familiar to devotees of television commercials: “You Can't Fool Mother Nature.” Opposition to ratification was not confined to religious objections by women. Conservative legislators opposed ratification for the same reasons that many businessmen did. They feared that in requiring government to grant persons equal protection of the law (equality of rights) regardless of sex, the amendment would legitimize scrutiny by the courts of all forms of discrimination based on sex, thus proving to be expensive. They also feared that ratification would allow the federal government to scrutinize further state and local government. Angered by federal interest in racial equality, conservatives bridled at yet further mischief to be expected from a government bent on applying the principle beyond race. A more subtle aspect of male opposition was the assumption that an issue initiated by women was really not very important. Women legislators confessed dismay and anger at the inability of many men to accept women as colleagues. Such matters revealed legislators’ belief that “equality of rights on account of sex” was not really an appropriate part of legislative business. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, chap. 7.

54. The argument ignored the actual role of women in contemporaneous military life and did not take into account the assumption on the part of many proponents of the ERA that the amendment would probably not force women into combat. It was a perfect symbolic issue in that it could be argued on practical terms while appealing to traditional gender norms, male protectiveness, and the fears of young women. Indeed, proponents believed that the issue was raised in order to frighten people into retaining sexual distinctions beneficial to men. The idea of women warriors also carried with it the apocalyptic connotations of death for women who stepped out of their appropriate sphere into the ultimate public space of the battlefield. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 137-43, 162-63, 171-72. See also Kerber, Linda K., “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History,” Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 939.

55. Patsy H. Greene to Ervin, September 14,1970; Jay Walker to Ervin, March 28,1972; Mrs. Evelyn Bertchett to Ervin, October 3,1970; Mrs. Jewel Goodwin to Ervin, (received) January 31,1973; Mrs. Joyce Burgess to Ervin, February 5, 1973; Mrs. J. V. Braswell to Ervin, September 15,1970; all in Ervin papers, SHC. Mrs. Lois J. Watkins to Representative Margaret Kessee, February 24, 1973, in Kessee's private papers. See also “STOP-ERA” handout in author's possession.

56. Mrs. Alonzo Mayfield to Ervin, March 1972, in Ervin papers, SHC.

57. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 167-68, 171-79.

58. Note from Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Matthews to Willis P. Whichard, March 1,1975, in Willis P. Whichard papers, SHC.

59. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 53.

60. Interview with Representative Mary Pegg, October 13,1979.

61. Mathews and De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA, 167-72.

62. Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 52.

63. See Minow, Martha, “We, the Family: Constitutional Rights and American Families” Journal of American History 74 (December 1987): 959-83.

64. Hartog, Hendrik, “The Constitution of Aspiration and The Rights That Belong To Us All” Journal of American History 74 (December 1987): 1015-34, esp. 1017-18.

65. Reference to any study of collective behavior or action reveals that social movements can be categorized in a broad variety of ways. Revitalization movements come to mind as those that would most likely be characterized by cultural fundamentalism because they attempt to establish cultural defenses against challenges from modernizing and destabilizing trends. See Wallace, Anthony F. C., “Revitalization Movements” American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264-81.

66. Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 68-92.

67. Gusfield, Joseph, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963), 156; see also 166-188.

“Spiritual Warfare”: Cultural Fundamentalism and the Equal Rights Amendment

  • Donald G. Mathews


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