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Right-wing movements have existed since colonial times in the USA, yet the majority of studies have focused on either what is termed the ‘Old Right’ of the 1950s or the ‘New Right’ formed during the mid-1970s and 1980s. An explosion of interest in understanding right-wing movements occurred in the aftermath of WWII when attention turned to authoritarianism, McCarthyism, and the Old Right of the 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s, particularly with the prominence of protest movements on the left, research on rightwing movements waned, but a resurgence of interest has focused on the New Right formed during the 1970s and 1980s. While little is known about women’s participation in the Old Right, recent studies have focused on understanding women’s role in the New Right. This research paper considers the affect of women and issues of gender in both the Old and New Right.
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1. Women And The Old Right
Historically, right-wing movements in the US have been based on a crucial marriage of interests between two groups. First, members of less-educated, lower economic strata, who are highly religious and drawn to the non-economic issues of right-wing movements. This sector is intolerant of ethnic and religious minorities, with particular antagonism expressed towards Blacks and towards immigrants, previously expressed against Catholics and Jews and more recently directed against Mexicans and Asians. The second sector includes those rooted in a more highly educated, higher-income strata, less religious, tolerant of minorities, and committed above all to economic conservatism. The Old Right of the 1950s combined these two sectors, one consisting of more affluent economic conservatives, particularly reacting to the expansion of government implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal of the 1930s, and a more devoutly religious and less educated, lower middle class following, fearful of communism due to strong evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs. Anticommunism held together the Old Right, spearheaded by the campaigns of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In terms of women’s role within the Old Right, the vast majority of research makes no mention at all of female activists. It is not clear whether the lack of attention to women in the Old Right is due to the small number of female participants in the movement or to the male bias of the researchers. Because of this lack of data, there is no way of knowing how women of the Old and New Right compare in terms of number of participants, degree of involvement, or social background.
2. Women And The Conservative Intellectual Movement
Cleavage within the popular movements of the Right in the US is also evidenced in the conservative intellectual movement, which is comprised of three main groups. First, classical liberals or libertarians promote the free market, private property, limited government, self-reliance, and laissez-faire, and resist the threat of the ever-expanding state to liberty and free enterprise. Second, are traditionalists who are dismayed by the erosion of values and the emergence of a secular society and who call for a return to traditional religious and ethical absolutes. Third are militant anticommunists, ex-radicals disillusioned by the left and who became alarmed by the despotism of the Soviet Union. With the emergence of the New Right, this third strand also includes ‘neo-conservatives,’ primarily academics and writers who rejected the politics of the Democratic Party during the late 1960s. Converts from the left, neo-conservatives are disillusioned liberals drawn heavily from Jewish, intellectual circles of the East Coast. As with mass right-wing movements, anticommunism has acted as the glue holding together the conservative intellectual movement.
Although nearly all of the inﬂuential conservative intellectuals are male, libertarian author Ayn Rand has had a profound impact on generations of rightwing adherents. Through novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand introduced the philosophy of objectivism and celebrated unbridled individualism, rationalism, and laissez-faire capitalism. Rand inspired thousands of people, especially youth during the 1960s, to join the libertarian cause.
3. Women And The New Right
During the mid to late 1970s varied groups coalesced into the New Right. Much of the force behind this coalition was a counter-movement to the social movements of the 1960s, an organized protest against affirmative action, the welfare state, feminism, and gay and lesbian rights. Like the Old Right, the New Right also incorporated two distinct constituencies: social conservatism and economic or laissez-faire conservatives. Social conservatives are devoutly religious and are primarily concerned about moral issues and protecting the traditional family. The family represents the building block of society; it instills children with moral values and restrains the pursuit of self-interest. Implicit in this image of the family is the social conservative conception of human nature. Humans are creatures of unlimited appetites and instincts. Left on their own, the world would be a chaos of seething passions, overrun by narrow self-interest. Only the moral authority of the family and religion tames human passions, transforming self-interest into the larger good. The ideal society is one in which individuals are integrated into a moral community, bound together by religious faith and by common values. Laissez-faire conservatives or libertarians in contrast, aim above all to protect the economic and political liberty of the individual. Rooted in the classical liberalism associated with Adam Smith, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill, laissez-faire conservatives uphold the economic liberty of the free market and the political liberty based on the minimal state. The individual is viewed as an autonomous, rational, self-interested actor. Rather than viewing humans as creatures of unlimited passions, laissez-faire conservatives view humans as beings endowed with free will, initiative, and self-reliance. The larger good is not ensured through the maintenance of moral authority and the restriction of self-interest. Rather, the laissez-faire ideal poses a society in which natural harmony exists through the very pursuit of self-interest. The aim of the good society is to elevate the potential of humans by bringing their creative and productive nature to fruition.
Despite these fundamental differences, like the Old Right, these two constituencies of the New Right united in their virulent opposition to communism. The New Right is distinct from the Old Right, however, in the visibility of its female participants and leaders. Increasingly women have taken a more active and visible role in right-wing politics. On a leadership level, such well-known ﬁgures as Phyllis Schlaﬂy, who led the ﬁght to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), typiﬁes the social conservative movement while Jeane Kirkpatrick, a professor of government, former United Nations representative, and newspaper columnist, embodies laissez-faire beliefs. Yet women of the New Right, like their male counterparts, are not a homogenous entity. They are drawn from different sociological pools. While the majority of activists are white, social conservatives tend to be somewhat less educated than laissez-faire women and are devoutly religious, primarily Catholic or Protestant fundamentalist, married with children, with many being full-time homemakers. Laissez-faire women tend to be younger, more secular in orientation, more likely to be single or divorced, and have smaller numbers of children, more postgraduate degrees, and typically have professional careers. In fact, in terms of social background laissez-faire women resemble feminist women.
3.1 Views Of Gender And Feminism
Women of the New Right have contrasting beliefs regarding gender. Social conservative women believe in a strict division of gender roles as decreed by the Scriptures. Gender is envisioned as a hierarchical ordering with God and Christ at the top, followed by men, and then women. While male and female roles are each respected as essential and complementary components of God’s plan, men are the spiritual leaders and decision-makers in the family. Women’s role is essentially deﬁned in terms of altruism and self-sacriﬁce: to support men in their positions of higher authority, and to care for the family. Because gender roles are delineated in such unambiguous terms, any blurring of these roles is viewed as a threat.
While social conservatives envision a man’s world as distinct from a woman’s world, no such distinctions are visible in the laissez-faire view of gender. There is a notable absence of commentary on gender, and particularly no mention of the need for male authority and female submission or of women’s natural orientation to others. The social conservative vision of a hierarchical ordering of authority of men over women is antithetical to the laissez-faire conservative ethos. Faith in individual self-reliance and free will, and belief in the liberty and autonomy of every individual, extends to women as well as to men.
Clearly, there is a relationship between a woman’s social location and her values and beliefs. It is not coincidental that a woman with a devout religious upbringing who is a full-time homemaker is likely to see the family at the center of the world and to adhere to a traditional ideology regarding gender. Nor is it a coincidence that a single professional women who is devoted to her career does not see the family as central and holds nontraditional attitudes about men’s and women’s roles. Traditional gender roles ‘work’ for social conservative women not simply because of ideology, but because they themselves are more likely to be in life situations which correspond to traditional roles. Laissez-faire women, on the other hand, are in life situations and have social resources outside of the traditional female sphere.
These varying perceptions of gender result in opposing views of gender discrimination. Because social conservatives adhere to a hierarchical ordering, they believe that positional differences between women and men do not imply inequality. Any positional differences between the sexes are attributed to ‘natural’ differences or to individual choice, not to gender discrimination. Laissez-faire women, on the other hand, are inclined to recognize and deplore the unequal treatment of women. Discrimination is denounced as interfering with the individual’s ability to climb to the height of her talents. Both men and women must remain unconstrained by external interference, free to follow the dictates of their own initiative. Although laissez-faire women share recognition of discrimination with feminists, they react to such bias purely in voluntaristic terms. Women who are discriminated against at work should on their own initiative leave the job and enter the free market to choose another one.
These differences in views of gender extend to opposing views of feminism. While social conservatives view feminism as one of the primary forces of moral decay responsible for America’s decline, laissezfaire women actually adhere to part of the feminist vision. Social conservative activism is a direct countermovement to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as to the changes brought on by the civil rights, student, and gay and lesbian movements. Social conservatives blame feminists for attacking the status of the homemaker and for promoting issues such as the ERA, abortion, gay rights, and childcare, all of which are viewed as eroding traditional notions of gender and the family. Calling themselves the ‘profamily’ movement, opposition to these very issues tops the political agenda of social conservative activists. Laissez-faire women, on the other hand, support gay rights, a woman’s right to abortion, and daycare, seeing them as private, individual matters that should not be legislated by the state. Laissez-faire women depart from many feminists, however, in the means to achieve women’s equality. While feminists call for federal support in addressing women’s needs, laissezfaire women oppose any reliance on big government, including government funding of daycare or abortion. Further, the top priority of laissez-faire women is not addressing women’s inequality; rather, issues related to the economy and defense remain the objectives of these women.
3.2 The Paradox Of Right-Wing Women’s Activism
Given the social conservative woman’s adherence to traditional gender roles in which men are breadwinners and protectors, and women are helpmates and caretakers, some analysts point to a seeming contradiction between these beliefs and her very role as a political activist. However, social conservative women do not see a tension between their political involvement and the traditional female role. Female activism is deﬁned within the bounds of traditional gender ideology as women altruistically working for the beneﬁt of a larger cause, acting as moral gatekeepers to bring purity to a world ﬁlled with sin. Nor is there any apparent paradox to laissez-faire women’s activism. Because they do not see women as bound to traditional roles, there is no seeming contradiction between their beliefs and their own role as public leaders. They do not conceive of themselves as the caretakers of society, altruistically at work for the beneﬁt of all. Instead, they see themselves as no different from men, self-interested actors working for a political cause.
Despite the prevalent assumption that anti-feminist women are ‘brainwashed’ or ‘lackeys’ of men, the actual paradox of right-wing women is that those women who are furthest from feminists in their beliefs actually do act in their own interests as women, while laissez-faire women, who actually share a portion of the feminist vision, do not act in their collective gender interest. Far from suffering from false consciousness, social conservative women are well aware of their interests and act to defend their status as women. To borrow a phrase from Marx, social conservative women act as women for themselves, while laissez-faire conservative women remain women in themselves. Gender identity is central to the political involvement of social conservative women; recognizing their commonality with other traditional women, they seek to protect women’s place as a group. Laissez-faire women are not motivated out of concern regarding gender; they do not act in the collective interest of women and therefore remain women in themselves. They act as members of the marketplace, not as members of their gender group, in organizing to return America to strength and freedom.
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