- “In the Beginning Was the Word”Evangelical Christian Women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Competing Definitions of Womanhood
During the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratification period from 1972 to 1982, evangelical Christian women’s organizations played an important role in the debate and discussion over the amendment. Though these organizations were all grouped under the same title of evangelical, they did not all argue for the same side of the ERA debate. Evangelical Christian female leaders and women’s organizations supported or rejected the Equal Rights Amendment based on how they defined womanhood. While they all used the Bible as the main source of evidence in their arguments about proper roles for women, and therefore whether to support the Equal Rights Amendment, they came to very different conclusions. Concerned Women for America and its leader Beverly LaHaye used what they perceived as a literal interpretation of the Bible to support their view that God made the two sexes different, and therefore inherently politically unequal, though not inferior or socially unequal. In their view men were made to rule, and subsequently the ERA had no place within the United States’ rule of law. The Evangelical Women’s Caucus argued that the Equal Rights Amendment was necessary as God wished for the sexes to be equal in all ways, including politically. In their view human fallibility led to biblical interpretation, deemed by some as literal, which supported female oppression and did not resonate with the word of God. In this way differing biblical interpretations led evangelical Christian women’s organizations to opposite definitions of womanhood, though all of them held that their biblical interpretations were literal. Their definitions of womanhood in turn informed their varying opinions on the Equal Rights Amendment and complicated the idea that all evangelical women held the same religious and political beliefs. Due to this historical context of discussion about proper gender roles for evangelical communities, the ERA ratification campaign fanned the flames of a growing separation among evangelical women, between those who supported [End Page 148] new liberalized definitions of womanhood and those who wanted to stick to old, traditional standards.
Historical analysis of evangelical women’s roles throughout the twentieth century is riddled with attempts at psychological explanation, especially when it was connected to perceived fundamental or literal biblical interpretation. As American Studies scholar Axel R. Schafer has pointed out, “rather than being understood on its own terms, orthodox religion was defined as a reaction against, a deviation from, or an adjustment to the given modern setting.” Scholars continue to describe traditionally religious people, particularly evangelical Christians, in this light. Historian Randall Balmer claims fundamentalist Christians and those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible “have felt beleaguered and besieged by forces beyond their control” during much of the twentieth century and sees their insistence on voicing their beliefs as “a desperate attempt to reclaim” a culture that has abandoned them. Religious scholar Karen McCarthy Brown emphasized this point and states that “fundamentalism, in my view, is the religion of the stressed and the disoriented, of those for whom the world is overwhelming.” Her belief is that they were not rational actors but, instead, psychologically disturbed and unwilling or unable to participate fully in the modern world. Evangelical Christian women receive the same treatment, sometimes even more harshly than that given to their male peers. Betty DeBerg, religious studies scholar, argues that “any hint of androgyny—a world without gender limits—seemed very frightening.” Linda Kintz supports this point by arguing that antifeminism offered a “solace to women who feel exhausted and desperate because they cannot keep up with the competitive world supposedly introduced by feminism, a world in which women who have felt humiliated by the more general historical contempt for women now feel even less secure because they are unable to keep up.”1
This essay seeks to add nuance to this historiography through discussion and analysis of evangelical Christian women’s theological and political ideologies, as well as their definitions of womanhood, and how these ideologies helped inform their stances on the ERA. Before this discussion can begin, though, it is important to define evangelical Christianity. As with...