Sadly, my dissertation research on antifeminism in late-twentieth-century American evangelicalism keeps being relevant. As I, a childless Canadian cisgender woman, have watched coverage and reaction to the Dobbs decision from SCOTUS unfold online, I have seen so much of the rhetoric I analyzed in my thesis popping up again in real time. Somehow, despite dedicated advocacy and education work by many people, a large portion of our society seems quite dedicated to the idea that terminating pregnancy = selfishness in any and every case. A woman’s selfishness, specifically. The lack of nuance and homogenization of so many complex (and often painful) scenarios in which pregnant people might find themselves doesn’t strike me as a particularly helpful framework. It is worth unpacking how this notion of “selfishness” has operated in certain influential Christian spaces, so I decided to share excerpts from a paper I gave at the American Society of Church History in January of 2020. Paying attention to the historical sources of some of this rhetoric in our religio-political circles seems important right now.

Creating the Feminist Bogey Woman: Popular Evangelical Authors’ Portrayal of Feminist Ideas, 1970-2010

In 1995 Baker Books, a Reformed-aligned press in Grand Rapids, MI, published Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’ pamphlet “The Feminist Bogeywoman: Questions and Answers About Evangelical Feminism.” In true Reformed style, the pamphlet is arranged in a catechistic format, and opens with the following question: “What is evangelical feminism? The term sounds like an oxymoron.” From other questions included in the pamphlet, such as “Isn’t evangelical feminism simply the product of an antibiblical, contemporary ideology that has infiltrated the church?” and “Hasn’t feminism contributed to—even caused—the breakdown of the family and the moral order in modern society?”, we can easily deduce that Merrill Groothuis assumed her readers would hold strong and overwhelmingly negative views on feminism. 

As tongue-in-cheek as the title of this pamphlet may be, it captures an important element of feminism’s portrayal in late-twentieth-century white evangelical circles. In the eyes of a significant number of white evangelical authors, feminism was antithetical to Christian truth. Going through their writings on the subject, I have concluded that, in their eyes, the two primary sins of the feminist bogeywoman were selfishness and arrogance. By positioning these sins as inherent within feminist ideas, anti-feminist evangelical authors were able to position the feminist as a bogeywoman who threatened everything a good Christian woman should hold dear. Through selective engagement with feminist ideas and frequent use of slippery slope arguments, anti-feminist evangelicals successfully created an intra-cultural Other to be resisted and used as counter-example when it came to identity production and boundary maintenance within the more conservative corners of the evangelical tent. 

The Texts

The 1970s saw a boom in new, evangelically-committed trade presses, with several of the bigger names in Christian publishing getting their start in that decade. It also saw the emergence of complementarian theology—a reactionary theological anthropology that sought to reaffirm “traditional” and “biblical” notions of masculinity and femininity within the church in the wake of second wave feminism. Through the seventies, eighties, nineties, and early oughts, we find books from Christian presses with titles such as Let Me Be a Woman, The Feminine Principle, The Fulfilled Woman, The Total Woman, I am a Woman by God’s Design, and A Woman After God’s Own Heart. These books all present particular gender performance as an essential element of women’s Christian piety. 

Coming from authors of various evangelical stripes, these books share a common concern. Specifically, the authors of these books believe that women are being told not to be women by their surrounding culture. Therefore, their readers need help finding, owning, and practicing their femininity as God intended. As Mary Kassian wrote in her 1992 book The Feminist Gospel: “Whereas in the past, complementarity could generally be ‘caught,’ the new cultural milieu dictates that it must now be ‘taught.’”[1] Feminism routinely appears as the reason women have an identity problem and need help knowing how to be women. Examining the constellation of words that appear in conjunction with the word “feminism” or “feminist” we find overwhelmingly negative language. Feminists are described as agitators who are angry, vociferous, strident, and wrongheaded. Likewise, feminism is compared to a plague or a natural disaster. In the view of these authors, “libbers” have instigated a cultural tsunami, an onslaught, a feminist flood, a “moral drain that well may flush us all down the sewer.”[2]

What was it about a feminist that had these authors worried about being flushed down the sewer or crushed by a cultural tsunami? She was selfish and she was arrogant. Both of these qualities, in the estimation of these complementarian authors, put her at odds with the virtues of godly womanhood. 

Selfishness

First: selfishness. Career aspirations, demanding rights, and exercising various reproductive choices were all seen as evidence of feminist selfishness. In counselling her nephew on what he should be looking for in a wife, Elisabeth Elliot cautioned him against marrying a career-minded woman. She writes: “Any woman you consider for a wife ought to be willing to put her husband and her children first: above her own interests, including a career. This is simple common sense.” Should the potential wife “cherish ambition for herself” she ought to know “there is nothing of God in that wish.” She concludes her warning to Pete: “If in her mind is the thought of rights—‘I have as much right as any man to hold a job’—you are in for trouble. Watch out for the woman who talks of rights!”Only those women who work out of necessity, not, in the words of Carolyn Mahaney, “in order to pursue selfish ambitions,” are acceptability performing the femininity given to them by God.[3] 

As feminist writers and activists advocated for abortion access, or announced they were eschewing marriage and motherhood, these choices could only be seen as evidence of their selfishness by these critical commentators. 

These books contrast the selfish feminist with another type of woman. Adjectives used to describe her are “real,” “authentic,” “true,” and “biblical.” Real women are self-giving. Authentic women want to be full-time wives and mothers. True women eschew ambition beyond the home. False women, inauthentic women, synthetic women, unbiblical/secular women pursue vain and selfish things. Beverly LaHaye sees selfishness as inherently un-feminine. In her words, “Some feminist psychologists look on selflessness as a neurotic behavior instilled in women by a male-oriented social system. But I believe God gave women a natural tendency toward giving, nurturing, serving, and comforting. To deny this selfless nature is to deny our personalities and the purpose for our existence.”[4] A proper woman is a woman oriented to others, not herself. The selfishness of the feminist often becomes linked with the futility of life outside of the will of God. Our authors frequently contrast finding one’s identity and purpose through Jesus with finding meaning in the feminist movement. Take for example the story of Lisa, a corporate working mother who, after studying biblical roles for women, has the scales come off of her eyes and begins to see the corporate world differently: “Soon the conversations at work about vacations, wardrobes, and material success that she once enjoyed seemed silly and selfish. Instead Lisa began to prize the biblical roles of wife and mother. Eventually, John and Lisa agreed to sell their big house, buy a less expensive place to live, and prepare for Lisa to come home full time.”[5] Stories like Lisa’s reinforce the notion that true, meaningful identity production for Christian women is found within the home, centred on others. God’s ways—read: middle-class, white, female domesticity—are eternal and satisfying. The selfish ways of the feminist are worldly, temporary, and failing. 

Arrogance

In addition to her selfishness the feminist was also scorned for her presumed arrogance. Through feminism, in the eyes of Mary Kassian, “Women had not only claimed the right to name themselves, but also the right to name and define the world around them.”[6] In Kassian’s view, this was a gross overstep on feminisms’ behalf. The feminist demonstrates her arrogance in advocating for lifestyles and societal changes that, in the eyes of these complementarian authors, run counter to God’s distinct designs for men and women. According to these critical commentators the key defining feature of feminism is a denial of difference between men and women. As Beverly LaHaye phrased it: “The ultimate feminist goal [is] an androgynous (unisex) society where all sexual distinctions have been erased.”[7] The arrogant feminist hopes for a world where men and women are completely interchangeable in the home, church, and society. This denial of sexual difference is referred to as “the hubris of creatures trying to oust the Creator.” [8]

Herein lies the most threatening element of the feminist bogeywoman: her challenge of female complacency was viewed as a disposal of everything a “good Christian woman” should hold dear. A boundary must be maintained between good Christian women and their bogeywoman feminist compatriots. In short, there can be no safe engagement with feminist ideas. As Beverly LaHaye puts it, “The history of feminist ideology is manifestly anti-mother, anti-child, and anti-Jesus.”[9] The rather polemic words of Mary Pride highlight the perceived extent of the feminist threat: “Christians have accepted feminists’ ‘moderate’ demands for family planning and careers while rejecting the ‘radical’ side of feminism—meaning lesbianism and abortion. What most do not see is that one demand leads to the other. Feminism is a totally self-consistent system aimed at rejecting God’s role for women. Those who adopt any part of its lifestyle can’t help picking up its philosophy. And those who pick up its philosophy are buying themselves a one-way ticket to social anarchy.”[10] Pulling all these threads together, the reader of complementarian books could quickly form the impression that Hell hath no slope more slippery than feminist ideas. 

Despite the earnest effort of Rebecca Merrill Groothius’ pamphlet and other words, the images of the feminist bogeywoman established in the 1970s and 80s continue to hold sway across swaths of the contemporary white evangelical religious subculture, making her origins important to understand and analyze. Within evangelical trade publications, complementarian authors portrayed feminists as selfish, arrogant, and thoroughly unchristian. Through selective engagement with feminist ideas and frequent use of slippery slope arguments, these anti-feminist evangelicals successfully created an intra-cultural Other to be kept at bay. The feminist was a threatening bogeywoman not only because of her ideas, but because of the strife her appearance caused within the church and the broader culture. In the intervening decades since the 1970s, critiques of feminist ideas from complementarians have remained static, despite changes and developments within more recent strands of feminism. 

June 2022 Addendum: I have been thinking about these anti-feminist Christian authors a lot this week. The way they cast feminist values as antithetical to virtuous womanhood seems to have seeped out of the pages of their decades-old trade paperbacks and sunk right in to the prevailing understandings of what is permissible for women within conservative circles. Their over-valourization of the self-sacrificial mother who chooses suffering for herself consistently and thoroughly (because through child bearing she will be saved) has had ripple effects.


[1] Mary Kassian, The Feminist Mistake (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 288.

[2] Judith M. Miles, The Feminine Principle: A Women’s Discovery of the Key to Total Fulfillment (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975),  96. 

[3] Elisabeth Elliot, The Mark of a Man (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1981), 159-160; Carolyn Mahaney, Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 93. 

[4] Beverly LaHaye, The Desires of a Woman’s Heart: Encouragement for Women When Traditional Values Are Challenged (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 77.

[5] Carolyn Mahaney, Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 18. 

[6] Kassian, 106.

[7] Beverly LaHaye, The Desires of a Woman’s Heart: Encouragement for Women When Traditional Values Are Challenged (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 74.

[8] Carolyn McCulley, Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008), 57. 

[9] McCulley, 142. 

[10] Mary Pride, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism and Back to Reality (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), xi-xii. Emphasis original.

4 thoughts

  1. Thanks for being such a good writer and researching this topic. It is so important to understand the source of today’s rhetoric. You seem an excellent guide.
    This said it all for me: “Herein lies the most threatening element of the feminist bogeywoman: her challenge of female complacency was viewed as a disposal of everything a “good Christian woman” should hold dear. A boundary must be maintained between good Christian women and their bogeywoman feminist compatriots. In short, there can be no safe engagement with feminist ideas.”

  2. I have never understood why people thought God actually “designed” male and female as some sort of permanently lopsided entity, never to be questioned or changed–even if believing that means not walking in your own truth or understanding yourself. I’m working on a new piece now that examines these themes, and I would love to quote you! Email me if this is a problem: jessica.pegis@gmail.com
    ps: you might like my piece in U.S. Catholic about Roe that considers, in part, presumptions about women at the heart of rigidly conservative views on abortion. “Overturning Roe is a bomb: Are we ready for the fallout?”

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