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  • Big Sister: Feminism, Conservatism, and Conspiracy in the Heartland by Erin M. Kempker
  • Carey Kelley
Erin M. Kempker, Big Sister: Feminism, Conservatism, and Conspiracy in the Heartland. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018. 222 pp. $24.95 (paper).

Big Sister examines feminism and conservatism in Indiana and makes connections between Cold War anticommunism and the New Right. Drawing from the growing body of scholarship on such topics, Kempker's book places [End Page 200] conservative Hoosier women as local actors who worked both with and independently of national organizations on the right. Hoosier feminists' and conservative women's voices are heard through Kempker's use of newspapers, letters, and manuscript collections.

Kempker asserts that conservative women in Indiana believed that the international support of a feminist agenda made one-worldism—or one world government—a looming threat. The United Nations's declaration of 1975 as International Women's Year served as proof to right-wing women that the U.N. had adopted a feminist agenda. In response to that declaration, the United States government allocated funds for conferences at state and national levels. Many women on the right viewed the national and international efforts to address women's issues as support of a feminist agenda. According to Kempker, many Indiana conservative women, who were concerned with one-worldism's impact on the home and the family, considered "big sister" more dangerous than "big brother." Despite the delegates' opposition to issues raised by the women's movement, Indiana ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. The ratification was, in part, due to its proponents' decision to move away from radical strategies and to narrowly focus their attention on its passage.

Historians have begun to investigate more thoroughly how conservative women shaped their own movement while impacting the women's movement. Kempker joins them, demonstrating how Indiana women reacted to one another. Hoosier feminists adopted a low-key strategy to maintain the support of Republican feminists, focusing on issues such as discriminatory hiring policies, equal pay, and rape. after Indiana ratified the ERA, antifeminists organized to inform women in the state about the dangers of the feminist agenda. Although historians have examined the relationship between feminists and right-wing women, Kempker offers a concise study that follows a continual thread of conspiracy theory through the narrative, exposing the fears that existed throughout grassroots organizations of conservative women. Kempker is particularly interested in the ideas that motivated politically active women in Indiana; at times, however, Hoosier women become overshadowed by Kempker's discussion of national activism.

The heart of conservative women's concerns drew upon the anticommunist grassroots activity in which midwestern women participated. According to Kempker, right-wing women were part of a larger American tradition of "fear of concentrated power" and belief in [End Page 201] "millennial prophecy" (4). Early anticommunist activism allowed some women on the right to develop a fear of one-worldism, which they thought imperiled the nation and their families (8). The midwestern concepts of amiability and conformity encouraged Hoosier right-wing women to support anticommunism and to resist feminism (12). Even if they did not fully see feminism as a conspiracy theory, these women perceived the effectiveness of associating the two. The strategy was rooted in organizations such as the Minute Women of the U.S.A., Pro America, and the John Birch Society. As social change brought more tolerance of and legal protections to divorce, pornography, and sexual liberation, anticommunism provided an alternative for women on the right to navigate those changes and express "their ambition and political interests outside the home in a way that reaffirmed their position within the home" (37).

Kempker's study is not solely focused on conservative women. Indeed, she demonstrates how Indiana's ERA advocates adjusted their strategy in the face of strong opposition, working to create bipartisan support for the amendment. They did this through Hoosiers for the Equal Rights Amendment (HERA) in order to minimize more radical feminist activities and agendas and to gain the support of more Hoosiers (108). Right-wing women's success in associating feminism with communism limited feminists' ability to advocate for drastic social change.

Kempker's tracing of 1950s and 1960s women...