Women have been the heart of the Christian right for decades

Alabama’s new abortion restrictions were signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey. But more has been said recently about the fact that the bill was passed by 25 white men in the state Senate. Media reports have pointed to how this law will disproportionately affect black and poor women.

Only four women currently serve in Alabama’s state Senate. Three voted against the bill, while one abstained.

In response to the Alabama vote, Democratic State Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison compared men’s votes on abortion legislation to “a dentist making a decision about heart surgery.”

“That’s why we need more women in office,” Coleman-Madison said.

Across the country, women are underrepresented in legislatures. But the question is: Would voting more women into office necessarily shift the politics of abortion?

Conservative women’s activism

My book, “This Is Our Message,” examines the history of women’s leadership in the modern religious right. When this movement emerged in the late 1970s, women were at the forefront. They helped shape the rhetoric of “family values,” which has included opposition to abortion, feminism and same-sex marriage.

These women’s contributions, however, are often overlooked.

My research shows that in the 1980s, news reports almost always credited conservative men with leading the Christian right. Prominent voices included televangelist Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who helped found the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian political lobbying group, in 1979.

But women also led the movement. Phyllis Schlafly is best known among these women for her fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have outlawed gender discrimination in any law at the local, state or national level. In the early 1970s, the amendment passed through Congress with bipartisan support. Ratification by the states seemed all but certain.

Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, led by Phyllis Schlafly, center, white coat, march in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., Feb. 5, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi
Then Schlafly mobilized hundreds of thousands of women against the amendment. They argued that it would make women subject to the military draft and that it would eliminate laws designed to protect women in the workplace and in divorce proceedings. They also raised the possibility of consequences that seemed alarming at the time but are familiar today, including same-sex marriage and gender-neutral public bathrooms.

These women lobbied their representatives, protested in state legislatures and wrote letters to the editors of local and national newspapers. In 1982, the amendment failed, lacking sufficient support from the states.

Schlafly was not the only female leader of the religious right in this era. In the late 1970s, pop singer Anita Bryant galvanized a sweeping backlash against the gay rights movement. When her local Miami-Dade County passed anti-discrimination protections for gay residents in 1977, Bryant led a successful repeal effort. She then lent her celebrity status and experience to similar fights nationwide.

Two years later, Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America, which is now the largest lobbying group in the country representing conservative women. Since its founding, the group has organized millions of women across the country to lobby for socially conservative legislation at the local, state and national levels.