Women Who Want to Be Women


Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America

By Nancy L. Cohen 

New York: Counterpoint, 2012, 394 pp., $27.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Kathryn Joyce

Reading Nancy Cohen’s Delirium in the same week as the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, last summer was a time-bending experience. As the convention sought to counter the image Democrats had painted of a party-wide Republican “war on women” by having a stream of accomplished women promote its reactionary platform, Cohen’s description of the Women Who Want to Be Women, an early 1970s antifeminist group that paved the way for the Christian right, seemed revelatory. When the candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, shouted from the podium, “I love you, women!” her smile stretched nearly as wide as her arms, she seemed to be recapitulating the role that the antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly had played years before, in first bringing her conservative women allies into the Republican tent.

Back then, Schlafly, a well-to-do corporate lawyer’s wife, had appealed to apolitical fundamentalist women reared on the doctrine of female submission to help her overthrow the Equal Rights Amendment. Now, their political descendants cheered Romney, an upper-crust, stay-at-home mother, clad in Nancy Reagan red, as “a real First Lady,” delivering a domesticated womanhood the heartland could appreciate.  
The cult of motherhood and self-sacrificing women is certainly not a new specter in American politics. Conservative women who gain power, career, or celebrity by telling other women to stay at home is a familiar story. In the past, as now, there’s a fight over what women should be and what it means to be “for women.” (As one sociologist in Delirium laments, change is well and good for feminists, but “think of the unliberated women”!)  

It’s an old fight, but a deeper story than most know, and in her exhaustive study, Cohen explores it well, tracing the line from Schlafly’s appeal to fundamentalists to the rise of the New Right; from the “hunting” of the Clintons to the long shadow the “sexual counterrevolution” casts today. For those who wonder why birth control and “legitimate rape” are the driving issues in the worst economy since the Depression, understanding the postsixties backlash is key.

The fundamentalist women taken in hand by Schlafly in the 1970s, close on the heels of second wave feminism, became a political machine, cranking out thousands of copies of the Pink Sheet—a passionate anti-ERA newsletter written in an emotional evangelicalese that Schlafly couldn’t speak—and lobbying their representatives with freshly baked bread. Their message, that “feminists weren’t proud to be women” and that their quest for equality “put down women,” helped birth a new coalition that cast sex education and childcare as attacks on traditional women’s roles.  

These women’s activism predates the 1979 founding of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority by years—although unsurprisingly, that’s little recognized—and they helped consolidate the union of upper-class establishment Republicans and lower-income religious conservatives. That unlikely marriage has driven conservative politics for nearly half a century. By the time the ERA was defeated, the political landscape had changed forever, and the ideal of traditional womanhood became a permanent part of the Republican platform.  

The counterrevolution also led to unending Democratic angst, as party moderates ritually disowned cultural liberals for driving mainstream voters away. From George McGovern’s loss in 1972 through John Kerry’s in 2004, moderate and conservative Democrats have excoriated the left for their party’s “death by cultural extremism,” as Cohen summarizes the argument. Every defeat has brought the demand that Democrats appease the center, by “getting religion,” disciplining liberals, and abandoning gains for women and gays.

It’s a fool’s errand, Cohen argues convincingly. The sexual counterrevolution, she explains, is based on a false premise. The sexual revolution did not cause the changing values of the sixties but rather resulted from them; 1950s family life was, she says, “a hothouse flower of Cold War culture,” never sturdy enough to last. Nonetheless, Democrats have been eating their own for decades, even after much of the sexual revolution became status quo.

But in recent years, Cohen writes, this cycle has swung out of control, with both parties captive to the collective “delirium” of a backlash culture gone wild.

Cohen’s title, Delirium, is a diagnosis repeated dozens of times throughout the book. There was “delirium” in the streets of Wichita during Operation Rescue’s 1991 Summer of Mercy. Anti-abortion leaders display “a delirious hatred of feminists.” There was “fevered delirium” in the attacks on the Clintons, most obviously in the “hysteria” and “frenzy” of the Lewinsky hearings. Right-wing author David Brock was in the thrall of “ideological delirium” in his defense of Clarence Thomas. Even Democrats “went hurtling into delirium” when they blamed Bush’s 2000 victory on cultural liberals, regardless of the very centrist campaign Vice President Al Gore had run.  

Despite this rather clunky drumbeat, there are certainly aspects of recent political history that make many liberals feel their country has gone off the rails. It’s there in the transfiguring hatred that the right has aimed at both the Clintons and the Obamas—both denounced, in their own way, as the anti-Christ—and it’s there in the eerie resonances between historical events and contemporary politics. In Cohen’s carefully curated details, it’s impossible to miss the parallel campaigns against “Hillarycare” and “Obamacare”—from the general fury of the protesters to the specifics of the guns they carry—or the echoes of the charge that the Clintons were “immoral homosexual communists” in today’s denunciations of President Obama as a “Kenyan Muslim socialist.” Or the fact that both campaigns were punctuated by the assassination of an abortion provider.  

“By any standard,” Cohen writes, “this is insanity. Delirium.”  

Many might agree. Yet Cohen’s repeated charge of “delirium” has the result of making her appear uninterested in what’s driving the sexual counterrevolutionaries—they come across too often as useful idiots whose motivations can’t be fathomed. This is a lost opportunity to explore what religious or cultural passions underlie the backlash and why antifeminist arguments are still catnip to the right.  

In Cohen’s rendition, Sarah Palin is nearly delirium incarnate, sparking a hysteria unlike anything since the Vietnam War and issuing one-liners that functioned as a “drug sending the delegates into a delirium of rage and elation.” Her fans scream like unhinged Beatlemaniacs, and Palin obliges with spectacle after spectacle, turning “grizzly mama feminism” into reality TV. The troubling examples Cohen recounts of the “delirium” surrounding Palin are certainly reprehensible: Palin rally-goers calling for Obama’s murder or taunting people of color with racist epithets.  

However, to cast these examples of hard racism as “delirium” does little to address the persistence of racism in our culture. Likewise, consigning the abiding appeal antifeminism has for many conservative women to a hysterical “Palin-mania” isn’t only a step backward—dismissing this women’s movement as women have always been dismissed—it’s wishful thinking. What’s at issue here isn’t crazy. It’s just very bad.

Meanwhile, Democrats who cater to the same lazy bigotries of backlash aren’t described as hysterics so much as cowards, or even victims. Such is the case in Cohen’s treatment of the Clintons, whom she views as a tragic couple—particularly Hillary, destroyed by counterrevolution while First Lady, then dragooned into underselling her feminism as a candidate. Cohen is a partisan, and that’s fine, but her sections on the Clintons read as apologia, as though these architects of triangulation—appearing above the fray by sacrificing the left—were forced into abandoning their base, when in fact they pioneered the campaign strategy that betrayed them. (Sister Souljah, the hip-hop artist who Bill Clinton famously denounced for “reverse racism,” in a transparent appeal to conservative whites that remains the defining example of triangulation, does not make an appearance in this book, though the postelection jubilation that greeted Obama’s 2008 victory is cast as “a kind of mass delirium.”)  

That what is human weakness in the case of Democrats is mindless delirium in Republicans is a through-line that threatens to undermine the book.  

The more convincing argument Cohen makes is one seemingly at odds with the idea of delirium. It’s her fascinating investigation into the counterrevolution as a stealth force, or “shadow movement,” directing national politics from behind the scenes.  

It’s bold to claim that the headline-grabbing Christian right is actually a “shadow movement,” but Cohen succeeds in the argument. The sexual counterrevolutionaries, Cohen demonstrates, have done best when they work out of sight: campaigning in code, signaling their base that they can be trusted, or out-and-out telling them so while publicly playing moderate. As the boy-king of nineties conservatism, Ralph Reed, famously boasted, the best evangelical activism paints its face and travels at night. The Christian right succeeds best when it keeps the depth of its sexual fundamentalism close to the chest, as Cohen shows in her case study of George W. Bush and her interesting reading of Sarah Palin. And it loses hardest when its cards are laid on the table, as in Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell’s spectacular Senate race flameout after her statements that masturbation is adultery and that she had “dabbled” in witchcraft went public.  

Cohen’s argument about right-wing stealth ably justifies the claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” for which Hillary Clinton was ridiculed when she was fending off sexually loaded attacks that did indeed sound crazy. But crafted by hardened Washington operatives, it’s a delirium that’s crazy like a fox. Which is to say, not delirious at all.

As it turns out, the hysterical mobs of American politics are actually often Republican hired hands, working in camouflage. Such was the staged spectacle of the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the 2000 election, when Republican staffers burst into the Miami-Dade polling headquarters to stop the recount, posing as an angry mob. Or, more recently, when Tea Party activists spewing racial and homophobic slurs at Democratic politicians defended themselves as driven to “act crazy” by the totalitarian threat of healthcare reform. Cohen shows how the Tea Party’s “grassroots” activism is in fact top-down, tightly-controlled Astroturf—and that’s an analysis I’d like to have seen applied more broadly in the book, distinguishing between strategic right-wing hijinks and the popular uprisings they pretend to be.

Cohen’s meticulous history of Democrats’ genuflections to the sexual counterrevolution is among the book’s most satisfying themes, building credibility for her concluding claim that there is an “alternative majority…waiting to be born” (as Cohen quotes the pundit E.J. Dionne), and that the elusive white male voter Democrats pine for is both a lost cause and eminently replaceable, if Democrats would just give nonvoters someone with a backbone to vote for. By 2010, Cohen notes, many Democrats got the message, and indeed, the party’s 2012 Democratic convention was a comparative picture of diversity beside the crowd that Ann Romney addressed.

But while Cohen is confident that there is broad support for the gains of feminism, and that “[c]ultural progressivism is the new American way,” I’m still troubled by the deep appeal that antifeminism has, both for the other side and for some of our own. Where this comes from remains my chief question after finishing Delirium.  

Cohen chalks up Democrats’ unwillingness to fully defend gender equality to cowardice or low-prioritization rather than to the deep strain of US conservatism that Phyllis Schlafly tapped into. It might not be the majority view, but it’s neither inconsequential nor temporary madness. Even among nonhysterics, John Kerry’s 2004 defeat was attributed by liberal writers in part to his outspoken wife, and the excesses of the Tea Party are denounced most vigorously by Republican moderates who ridicule the movement’s female politicians as unserious.

Even in the Democrats’ 2012 convention, lauded for women’s central role, First Lady Michelle Obama’s otherwise powerful speech discounted her entire professional life in favor of her role as “mom in chief.”  Listening to that speech, I don’t hear hysteria but rather calculation, which is sadly realistic at that. Understanding why it’s still necessary means understanding what continues to drive the backlash. And it demonstrates that, if the sexual counterrevolution is ever over, the unfinished work of the original revolution is still waiting.


Kathryn Joyce is author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, forthcoming in 2013, and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (2010). Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate and many others. 

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