R.E.A.L. Women and the ‘Pro-Family’ Movement

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Opposition occurs along side demands for equality and justice. Patriarchy, like related prejudices such as racism and homophobia, always has defenders. Canadian ‘antis’ who had resisted women suffrage had successors in R.E.A.L. (Realistic, Equal and Active for Life) Women founded in 1983 as a supposedly ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-family’ lobby. Claims to those values were a clever tactical move. In reality the group defended one kind of life and one kind of family, namely a narrow version of the middle-class, heterosexual, and Anglo-Celtic model for which it claimed moral universality. Representative of the ‘New Right’, best known in the United States in the person of Phyllis Schafley and the Eagle Forum, this group has been associated with the Christian Heritage Party and Ontario’s Family Coalition Party. They have opposed birth control other than abstinence and the ‘rhythm method’ and condemned homosexuality as unnatural. They targeted all efforts to give women real control of their own bodies, namely access to birth control and abortion, but their wider agenda constituted an attack on women’s right to determine their own lives in every arena, from employment to politics. R.E.A.L. Women channeled not only conservative hopes for continued entitlement in bedrooms and boardrooms but more pervasive fears about the unpredictability of change in the modern world.

In the U.S., the modern anti-feminist movement organized in response to modern feminists’ renewal of efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment beginning in the 1970s. Like her Canadian counterparts, Schlafly idealized the ‘homemaker’, ignoring the reality of most women, who were expected to balance the competing demands of work at home and in the market place, and the failure of the status quo to provide for the protection and security from violence and poverty of women in domestic space. Ironically, however, many Canadians and Americans, not to mention many others in the rest of the world, have attacked feminism as an assault on ‘the’ family and even as an expression of ‘godless Communism. The ‘pro-family’ candidates in the 2011-12 U.S. Republic primary campaigns embody such fears and contradictions. Related apprehension helps explain the similar emergence in Italy of “Eowyn, a group of women associated with the neo-fascist party,” which fought “abortion, divorce, and daycare as destructive of the family,” and Australia’s ‘Women Who Want to Be Women’ (Steuter 297).

Despite its resistance to expanded opportunity, R.E.A.L. Women applied for funding from Canada’s Secretary of State’s Women’s Program, although it had been established to promote equality. That application, successful finally in 1989, prompted strong resistance from Canada’s umbrella feminist group, NAC (the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) that had been founded to promote the recommendations of the Report (1970) of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The emergence of R.E.A.L. Women encouraged feminists to explain more fully their own perspective on families, namely to distinguish “between what types of families are seen as unacceptable (where there is exploitation, violence, abuse, incest, stifling of growth) and which ones are not only acceptable but indeed deserving of social support (where there is mutual caring, support, respect, commitment and growth)-irrespective of their structure and composition” (Steuter 303).

At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, R.E.A.L. Women continues to exist. In the midst of neo-Conservative victories in Ottawa, it is, however, far less visible on the political landscape. Even as the gap between rich and poor deepens and women and children increasingly join the lineups at Food Banks, anti-feminist women and men appear as parliamentarians. In the meantime, it is easy to suspect that R.E.A.L. Women, neo-Conservatism’s ‘reserve army’, will reappear whenever feminism becomes again, as it was in the 1980s, a significant force on the national stage.


Resources & Further Reading

Dubinsky, Karen. 1985. “Lament for a Patriarchy Lost”: Anti – Feminism, Anti – abortion and R.E.A.L. Women. Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.

Dubinsky, Karen.
1987 a “Really Dangerous: The Challenge of R.E.A.L. Women”. Canadian Dimension 21(6):4-7.

Eichler, Margrit.
1985 “The Pro-Family Movement: Are they For or Against Families?” C.R.I.A.W. working paper, pp. 1-37

Kamerman, Sheila B. and Alfred J. Kahn. Eds. 1997. Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Steuter, Erin. 1992. “Women Against Feminism: An Examination of Feminist Social Movements and Anti-feminist Countermovements.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 29:3. 288-

Tatalovich, Raymond. 1997. The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study. Armonk, N.Y.. M.E. Sharpe.

The Opponents of Woman Suffrage

US Library of Congress.

US Library of Congress.

Wherever feminism reaps success or threatens the status quo, anti-feminist movements tend to arise (Chafetz and Dworkin, 37). Allied, as they often have been with other defenses of existing privilege, they can be powerful, as Genevieve LeBaron had indicated in her post here on anti-suffragists in the U.S. south. Suffrage campaigners everywhere faced determined opposition. Its threat always informed their choice of tactics and arguments. Steuter has noted that “during the period 1912-1916” in the United States, “21 state-level woman suffrage referenda came to a vote, and only six passed” (291). She also argues that “the fact that an anti-suffrage movement did not ever fully develop in Canada may have been due to the fact that the women who successfully lobbied for suffrage did not attempt to make a concerted attack on these values. Indeed, some historians have argued that the success of the suffrage movement in Canada was in large part due to its highly conservative nature”(292). Strong-Boag, however, has pointed to the authority of leading antifeminists in both French and English Canada in the same period. Men such as the humorist Stephen Leacock, McGill’s Professor of Medicine Andrew Macphail, and politician Henri Bourassa were members of the nation’s elite and their tirades found audiences. Historian Susan Mann Trofimenkoff has noted as well in her examination of one of French Canada’s leading cultural authorities, Lionel Groulx, the close association of conservative nationalism and resistance to women’s autonomy. In particular, some Catholic French Canadians associated women’s rights with the threat of secularism and modernism, which would undermine a supposedly providential mission in North America. Just as in France itself, such anti-feminists tried to portray the suffrage as foreign to the spirit of the nation (McMillan 221). In Germany and Austria, but elsewhere too, anti-suffrage arguments were also often associated with anti-Semitism (Bock 135). Neither women nor Jews were entirely fit members of the state.

While Canada had its female anti-feminists, they never wielded comparable authority to men such as Leacock, Macphail, Bourassa and Groulx. In the United Kingdom, anti-feminists were especially likely to found in the ranks of arch imperialists and were closely identified with conservative elite men such as Lord Nathaniel Curzon, one time Viceroy of India, but they also included a few high profile women such as novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward. In Australia, an Anti-Suffrage League founded by women emerged early in the 20th century closely associated with the Conservative Party, manufacturing interests, and anti-socialist forces (Oldfield). Such anti-suffragists often argued that women had enough to do in their own homes and that the vote would destroy the essence of femininity, what American antis termed “a reform against nature” (Vacca), and lead to a political partisanship that would undermine women’s moral authority. Women also appeared among the anti-suffrage forces in Japan, where once again they were likely to be closely associated with conservative nationalism (Mackie 61) Not surprisingly, few such female antis dealt with the obvious contradictions between their own public role as opponents of the vote and the idealization of a domesticated womanhood. Ultimately, both female and male anti-feminists took for granted that their material and ideological interests depended on the defense of patriarchal privilege.


Resources & Further Reading

Bacchi, Carol Lee
1983 Liberation Deferred: The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists 1877-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bock, Gisela. 2002. Women in European History. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Bush, Julia. 2007. Women Against the Vote: Female anti-suffragism in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chafetz, Janet Saltzman and Anthony Gary Dworkin. 1987. “In the Face of Threat: Organized Antifeminism in Comparative Perspective.” Gender and Society. 1:1 March.33-60.

Conover, Pamela J., and Virginia Gray
1983 Feminism and the New Right Conflict Over the American Family. New York: Praeger.

Harrison, Brian. 1978. Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain. London: Croom Helm.

Klatch, Rebecca. 1988. Women of the New Right. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Joannou, Maroula. 2005. “Mary August Ward (Mrs. Humphry) and the Opposition to Women’s Suffrage,” Women’s History Review 13: 3 & 4 (2005): 561-580.

Mackie, Vera C. 2003. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodime,nt and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McMillan, James F. 2000. France and Women, 189-1914: Gender Society and Politics. London: Routledge.

Marshall, Susan
1985 “Ladies Against Women: Mobilization Dilemmas of Anti-feminist Movements”. Social Problems 32: 348-62.

Marshall, Susan. 1991. “Who Speaks for American Women? The Future of Antifeminism.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. May. 50-62.

Oldfield, Audrey. Women Suffrage in Australia (Cambridge & N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Petchesky, Rosalind
1981 “Antiabortion, Antifeminism and the Rise of the New Right”. Feminist Studies 7: 206-46.

Steuter, Erin. 1992. “Women Against Feminism: An Examination of Feminist Social Movements and Anti-feminist Countermovements.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 29:3. 288-306.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. 1996. “Independent Women, Problematic Men: First and Second Wave Anti-Feminism in Canada from Goldwin Smith to Betty Steele, ” Histoire sociale/Social History 57. May. 1-22.

Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann. 1978. «Less femmes dans l’oeuvre de Groulx.» Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 32:3. 385-98.

Vacca, Carolyn S. 2004. A Reform Against nature: Woman Suffrage and the Rethinking of American Citizenship, 1840-1920. N.Y. Peter Lang.

Anti-Suffrage Movements in the USA South

The serious opposition to [woman suffrage] has been financed by the Whiskey Interests and the Cotton Mill owners of New England and the South. The former feared the suppression of the whiskey traffic and the latter the suppression of the exploitation of child labor, and of the competition of insufficiently paid labor of women in their mills. –Chief Justice Walter Clark to Henry Watterson, 1919.i

While the cause helped unify diverse groups with different agendas in the United States (US), as in Britain and Canada, suffrage roused great controversy and opposition. Peaking at a time of considerable ferment in the meanings and configurations of race, gender, and class in the US, advocates themselves split over white supremacy, the role of the state, and property ownership. The American South proved a special battlefield. Even as they demanded an end to discrimination against women, some leading suffragists promoted suffrage as a means of preserving white supremacy and systematic discrimination against people of color (Wheeler 1993). Such prejudices linked them, ironically enough, to their opponents. Southern antis, supported by saloon protective leagues and many industrialists, likewise positioned themselves as the champions of White Rule. For them, however, suffragists associated with equal rights campaigns threatened that dominance.

Although American anti-suffragism was composed mainly of women, and somewhat reminiscent of “domestic feminism”— in its emphasis on women’s special nature, although not its extension into the public sphere—the movement was supported by conservative political and economic interest groups. In the South, this coalition combined the forces of big agriculture, big business, and the Democratic Party, all of whom saw enfranchised women as the enemy. What united planters, textile men, railroad magnates, machine bosses, and liquor lawyers in their opposition to suffrage? Simply put, in historian Elna Green’s words, they feared that “suffragists would make good on their promises to vote in various reform measures, and, in effect, change their world” (1997: 52).

Factory workers in Florida by US National Archives.

Specific motivations varied. Textile interests, whose factories relied heavily on the cheap labor of women and children, opposed women suffrage for fear of “the power of women’s votes in preventing the exploitation of child labor, in requiring ‘equal pay for equal service,’ irrespective of sex” (as cited in Green 1997: 52). Big business feared that female voters would pass minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws for women workers, establish health and safety standards for factory workers, and abolish child labor. The railways feared a full-scale assault on a business widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in American society. Career politicians, grown wealthy by government contracts and political contacts, perceived a threat to their incomes when suffragists promised to ‘house-clean’ assemblies. In Green’s words, “the Black Belt aristocrats and their associates had spent the better part of a generation reassembling their former political hegemony [after the Civil War] and were not about to let millions of untested voters destroy that accomplishment” (1997: 55). In sum, because their wealth and political power were doubly dependent upon the political subordination of women and of people of color, antisuffragists in the southern states had a special stake in upholding and reinforcing the status quo. Despite the racism of some southern suffragists, their opponents remained convinced that enfranchising women promised the beginning of the end to entrenched power over both women and Black Americans, not to mention the poor more generally.

Further Reading:

E. C. DuBois (1999). Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

E. C. Green (1997). Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

M. S. Wheeler (1993). New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A. S. Kraditor (1965). The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890 to 1920. New York: W. Norton & Company.

A. F. Scott (1970). The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

E C. DuBois (1997). Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. Yale University Press.