Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Donna Luff (2000) 'British 'Moral Right' Women and Feminism'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

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Received: 28/4/2000      Accepted: 22/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


A consistent feature of the 'Right' in Britain over the past three decades has been the existence of campaigning organisations opposed to the legislative and social changes of the so-called 'permissive society'. These organisations have been commonly, if contentiously, associated with the wider New Right project and have been collectively characterised as the 'moral right'. In my reflections here, I do not intend to pursue a detailed assessment of debates about the existence and activism of the 'moral right' in a general way as this has been comprehensively done elsewhere (Durham 1991; Isaac 1994). Instead I want to reflect upon tensions and commonalities within the 'moral right' in relation to feminism and beliefs about gender. My particular focus is on the divergent views of women members of 'moral right' organisations in these areas.

To set my reflections in a context, I will provide a brief 'overview' of the British 'moral right' and then focus specifically on attitudes to feminism and what they indicate about gender beliefs. Where appropriate I will draw on the work of other academics, the writings of moral campaigners themselves and my own experience of conducting research with women involved in moral campaigns.

An Overview of the 'Moral Right'

The debate about the legacy of the 'permissive society' has been a recurrent theme in British political and cultural life since the 1960's. As liberation movements, technological change, and liberalisation of laws in relation to private, particularly sexual, conduct have contested moral certainties and altered social attitudes, an opposition has developed in defense of "traditional" values, based on the family and a Judeo-Christian heritage.

At the forefront of this opposition has been a loosely constructed lobby of campaigning organisations, formed from the 1960s onwards. The groups most commonly identified with this phenomenon have been the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA), Christian Action Research Education (CARE, formerly Festival of Light), and Family and Youth Concern (FYC, formerly The Responsible Society) (Durham, 1991). These groups are often seen as the stalwarts of a broader, if loose, "pro-family" movement. They range in both size and resources, which CARE being perhaps the largest of the groups with a resource output that rivals "anything ever produced by a political party or trade union" (Thompson, 1992:78). A range of smaller local groups also exist some of which have achieved a high level of national prominence on certain issues, notably Parents in Suffolk, led by Victoria Gillick, on the availability of contraception to under-16's, and the Parents Rights Group in Haringey around proposals for teaching about homosexuality (Cooper and Herman, 1991; Durham, 1991).

It has been argued that these groups perceived the affluence of the 50s and 60s and the accompanying cultural transformation as resulting in "the abandonment of moral orthodoxy and moral commitment, and therefore the effective dissolution of moral authority" (Tracey and Morrison, 1979:24). The foundations of the groups' anxieties have been traced to the decline of organised religion, demographic and social changes within the family and the rise of "expressive and consumerist" values (Cliff, 1979:149; Durham, 1991).

The term 'moral right' has been used to describe these groups in spite of the expressed aim of the groups to remain politically unaligned and their apparent lack of effort to unite as a movement (Abbott and Wallace, 1992). The development of the Conservative Family Campaign in the 1980s is interesting in this respect both because it was the only organisation to exist as an institutionalised part of the party political right, but also because it attempted to co-ordinate a British style "moral majority", an idea that received little support from other campaigners. Further, it has been claimed that their relationship to the wider, economic New Right has been at best contradictory (Durham, 1991). Nonetheless, most commentators have continued to use the term New Right to cover all economic, social and moral aspects of what they see as differing strands of essentially the same phenomenon [1]. Early analyses of the New Right, notably by Stuart Hall (1983), defended this hegemonic argument against tendencies on the left to dismiss the right's programme as "mere ideology". The term "moral right" reinforces this positioning of "pro-family" groupings under the broad umbrella of the New Right whilst also seeking to acknowledge their distinctive features.

This analysis has been highly influential. Jennifer Somerville has argued that this has been especially true amongst feminist commentators, who have assumed "in varying degrees" a shared identity "between moral conservatism and right-wing politics" (Somerville 1992:102). She goes on to claim that data on women in moral organisations from abroad, particularly the USA, "reveals a wide variety of motivations and suggests that the idea that they are all right-wingers is unjustified" (Somerville, 1992:102). My own research with women in the British moral lobby would support this view in party political terms. Particularly within CARE, there is evidence of a range of party political identifications and a strong resistance to being aligned to the economic New Right. The position held by most of the women amounted to the conviction that whatever the "moral right" is, or wherever it exists (most likely in the USA), it is somebody else, not them! The "moral right" exists elsewhere outside of their particular organisation, but not necessarily outside of the other groups with whom they are associated in popular discourse. Indeed, some of the women I spoke to expressed considerable concern about the activities of other groups with whom they are publicly aligned. I sought to demonstrate that this political positioning could not be simply dismissed as 'face-saving' or political pragmatism but rather reflected tensions and differences in motivation within sections of the moral lobby (Luff, 1997). Further, the groups have often been publicly disappointed with Conservative governments policies over the past two decades and with new right libertarianism, in other words with the key elements of what has come to be understood as the New Right (Durham, 1991). Anyone who read CARE's periodical 'Salt and Light' would find it easy to agree with Bill Thompson (1992) that unlike the American Moral Majority, at least some British moral groups do not believe that the free market automatically leads to moral responsibility.

In seeking to understand more fully what motivates and unites moral campaigners several writers then have stressed the importance of religious beliefs, particularly Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism (Tracey and Morrison, 1979; Durham, 1991; Thompson, 1992; Herman, 1994). Academics and feminists can often overlook the centrality of religious orientation, perhaps because secular sociologists may fail to see evangelical Christianity (Herman, 1994, Warner, 1979). Indeed it has been claimed that the support base for moral crusades are "fundamentalist" churches, whose growth sociologists have overlooked because of a background of denominational decline within Protestantism as a whole (Thompson, 1992). The term 'fundamentalism' may itself be unhelpful because of the literal emphasis on withdrawal from secular engagement which has limited roots in the British context, and it may be preferable to look at the social interventionism of moral activists as based on a radically conservative "neo-evangelicalism" (Maitland, 1992). However, it is also the case that some groups, notably FYC, are formally constituted as secular. My own research has led me to conclude that the activists' religious positions and motivations do vary and are better viewed as on a spectrum, across which there are commonalties which enable them to work together on many issues, and that, in pragmatic political terms, these commonalities may override significant personal differences in theology and motivation. It is above all the perceived centrality of the family to the health and success of the nation that enables secular groups, like FYC, to ally to work with overtly religious organisations (Cliff, 1979). For example, the current conflict over the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which prevents the 'promotion' of homosexuality within schools, has generated a concerted lobby of MPs and Peers from across the 'moral right'.

Most of the women I spoke to were ultimately happier with the portrayal of themselves as 'moral' rather than 'right-wing'. Many women argue that what all activists in these areas are engaged in, whether of the formally political left or right, is a moral campaign, for CARE indeed a 'spiritual war', and that they are just more upfront about their position than others. As one woman said:

"Yes, well it is moral and it is a moral side and we do have a moral position. Now I'm not uncomfortable with that at all, I have a moral position. But I would want to say everybody has a moral position, if you take the meaning of the word moral literally which is just a word used to mean way of life. I don't think it's actually possible to be amoral that says we don't have a moral stance. We all have moral stances. And we have a particular moral stance, the FPA, they are indignant about people who disagree with them. That's not neutrality. And we are locked into a beliefs' and values' conflict. And the sooner we're honest about that the better" (CARE 1, my emphasis, quoted in Luff, 1997).

Moral Right Attitudes to Feminism

Some commentators have suggested that pro-family women act out of a sense of personal "besetment" as the lifestyles these women have lived become less the "norm" and the safeguards they experienced seem to disappear, for example with rising divorce rates (Balmer, 1994). Further women from 'fundamentalist' churches in particular may feel themselves caught between the value placed on feminine domesticity in their religious circles and the "calls from feminists for liberation and self-assertion" (Balmer 1994:54). The need to shore up their lifestyle in a world where it is increasingly challenged is experienced as a threat and it is little wonder that they "have come to feel anxious, vulnerable, and even slighted by feminist demands and symbols" (Erwin, 1988:267).

How then do women in moral campaign groups see feminism? The literature on this has been most extensive in the USA. Rebecca Klatch found that feminism was explicitly opposed as a key symbol of the threat to religious and family life (Klatch, 1987). In contrast, I would argue that a noticeable feature of the British moral lobby has been the comparative infrequency of explicit, direct attacks on feminism. This raises many questions. It may be that explicit attacks on feminism are seen as unpopular given the perception of feminist influence on liberal polity (Herman, 1994), or it may even suggest that feminism is seen as less important or successful. Alternatively, and more provocatively, it could be read as evidence of some degree of acceptance or support for feminism within the moral lobby, in other words that their anti-feminism has been over-played.

The most explicit and public attacks on have come from the ranks of Family and Youth Concern and from within the Institute of Economic Affairs (see Kelly, 1990, 1992; Quest 1994 for examples). Other groups have tended to be more circumspect in terms of vitriolic criticisms of feminism. Where criticism does exist it tends to support findings from the United States that opposition to feminism centres on the idea that it has denigrated and devalued women's traditional homemaking role, fed into the increased masculinisation and commercialisation of society by demanding rights and questioning the idea of doing things for "love", and further encouraged the breakdown of the family and male irresponsibility (Klatch, 1987; Kelly, 1990; Quest, 1994).

Modern feminism is seen to have lost its legitimacy principally by seeking to undermine the "naturalness" of gender differences. For example, Patricia Morgan has claimed that prior to the 1960's "feminists tended to be leading advocates of measures to foster the special contribution of mothers" seeking to "enhance the status of women in the home" (Morgan, 1994:21). Other moral campaigners like Victoria Gillick have also identified themselves as carrying on an earlier (arguably imaginary) feminist tradition (Hawkes, 1984). The "legitimate fight for the removal of legal discrimination against women, and a society offering equal opportunities based on individual free choice" which these women could support, has however now been "overtaken and superseded by feminist political extremism" (Riches, 1991:43). However, elsewhere the condemnation of feminism is so sweeping that it is hard to see what would actually constitute a "legitimate fight". For example, Christine Kelly, deputy director of Family and Youth Concern, has written:

"Feminism is self-defeating: it basically aims at aping male characteristics, and inevitably leads to radical sterility: whether religious, moral, artistic, human or sexual. It is prompted by a spirit of bitterness and resentment and tramples down upon the "mystery of femininity" characterised by sacredness, receptivity, openness to the divine" (Kelly, 1992:5)

These examples indicate a sense of naturally and divinely ordained differences between the sexes and the perniciousness of feminism in seeking to question these biological imperatives. In this view, patriarchy is what men are "given" to ensure their participation in domestic society, which they do not see as naturally in their interests in the way that women do (Kenny, 1994). Therefore, feminism threatens both to separate women from their divinely ordained path to fulfilment and deprive them of what legitimate power they have. The relations between men and women are seen as an inevitable compromise between differing interests, involving necessary trade-offs rooted in biological differences.

However, it would be difficult to claim that all women in 'moral right' groups share these views or that there are no voices of dissent or questioning. CARE, for example, has tended to shy away from outright condemnation of the kind outlined above and there have been debates about the value of Christian feminism in their periodical (Grear, 1989; Mealyea, 1989). In my own research with moral lobby women I found that there were divergences between women in different organisations on the issue of 'women's interests' gender and feminism. Most of the women expressed views that feminism had been positive in some ways. Overall the image that emerged was of some support for equal opportunities, to a greater or lesser extent, in the public sphere and a dislike of abusive or self-serving male attitudes. Indeed some of the CARE women I spoke to could agree with feminists in certain contexts, notably within the Protestant Church, and a few also claimed that they were seen as feminists by other people within their social world on some issues.

A reluctance to self-identify as feminists, however, hinged upon two issues - firstly a problem in defining "feminism"[2] and secondly a rejection of perceived "anti-male" attitudes. Again, I want to illustrate my point by using an example from my own research. Much of this tentativeness came from an idea that they could only be "feminists" to certain people and in certain definitions:

"With regards to non-Christian feminist views, that'd be a bit more dodgy because I personally think, I believe strongly in the family and I'd be quite happy to take on the traditional woman's role in the family. And I'd be quite happy to give up my job to bring up the kids. But if it was right then I would be quite happy for my husband to give up his job to look after the kids. So I don't know, I suppose it depends on your definition of feminist really " (CARE activist 2, my emphasis, quoted in Luff, 1997).

When I asked her about her definition of feminism, she stressed a sense of self-determination and choice:

"A woman's right to be equal under law and in the church I think. That's probably how I'd see it. So basically a woman's right to determine how she lives her life and determine the role that she takes, and to be free to adopt the role that she wants for her life. And to be seen as equal in doing that, so equal pay and equal status. Not to be prejudiced against, I don't know if that's the right word, not to be put down in any way" (CARE activist 2, my emphasis, quoted in Luff, 1997).

These ideas of what it means to be feminist have links to notions of liberal feminism, particularly in the USA, that have stressed formal equality in the liberal public sphere (Jaggar, 1988 ). Further, I would argue, it illustrates an implicit (and particular) heterosexual viewpoint. Notably she feels that where she would radically depart from other feminists is on the issue of men:

"I suppose extreme feminism is where a woman says that she doesn't need a man to be fulfilled, I suppose that's taking it to extreme. But I don't think for me personally I wouldn't go along with that. So things that are sort of anti-men" (CARE activist 2, quoted in Luff, 1997).

What is meant by "anti-men" seems to me to be about rejecting the assumed complementarity and interconnectedness of men and women in heterosexual gendered relations. Thus though the "system" may need to be reformed to end "prejudice" against women, relations with men cannot be rejected, given their assumed necessity to "fulfilment".

The commonly repeated idea of going "too far" then centres on a belief that was rejecting of or anti-men, that it denied the "natural differences" between men and women to the detriment of both. However, even considering one widely accepted stereotype of 'moral right' anti-feminism, that they wish to confine women to a homemaking role, there is evidence of divergent views. Whilst one CARE activist stated that she would "stick my neck out and say, I don't think it's a very popular thing to say but I think mums should stay at home" (CARE activist 3, quoted in Luff, 1997) others held different views. Another CARE activist felt decisions about responsibility for paid work and child care did not need to be made on the basis of gender:

"It's partly to do with being Christians, our minds have been freed from stereotypes, and I believe that the stereotyping of a woman having to be at home with the children and the man working is just the western middle class capitalist idea and has got nothing to do with the Bible nor with Christianity" (CARE 4, quoted in Luff, 1997)

The gap in (political and social) in this area between women like these and others, particularly from some of the other groups was at times stark. For example, a woman from another group claimed:

'We feel different, we act differently, there's tremendous differences. There's no such thing as equality between men and women. I mean there isn't, physically, psychologically, emotionally we're not equal. I mean that's very clear. So to say that the roles have to be equal, I mean it's almost contradicting nature' (Family activist 1, quoted in Luff 1997)

I would argue that one of the reasons for these divergences and the ability of some women to claim a feminist position, reflects the way in which feminism has translated into common parlance to represent any view that questions a strictly domestic idea of women's role. In this liberal view of feminism, being against women being compelled to work in the home can be enough to qualify as a "feminist", in some situations, and feminism becomes divorced from the idea of a political and radical movement. Thus feminism gains respectability by co-option, in that it is a liberal, reformist, "lifestyle" version of feminism that has won common acceptance and which is policed by positioning other versions as extremist. Further, the conflation of "extreme feminist" and "lesbian", as a way of marginalising, silencing or denigrating feminism, and reinforcing these practices in relation to lesbianism, was notable.

What most unites women in moral groups is the idea of "equal but different", and most ultimately saw men and women as having different, divinely inscribed natures. Moreover there was a firm belief that the different sexes were complementary, and thus their need for one another acted out in heterosexual relations. Given this, it easy to see why any feminism which advocates the fundamental questioning of (hetero)sexual relations, rather than the pursuit of public, formal equality, would be most clearly the type of feminism that had gone "too far".

For many of these women a kind of "benign patriarchy" [3] may not merely be the best option given the compromises and collusion, conscious and unconscious, that women have to make with male power, but may genuinely be the best option, because it is perceived to be divinely ordained. Thus changing practices that have been self-serving for men and have allowed them to maintain a "despotic" patriarchal control is "right" and "proper", not least because it runs counter to the 'radical attitude' of Jesus as regards women, but also is in line with our perceived Judeo-Christian heritage of justice (Family activist 2, in Luff, 1997). Many pro-family women believe that men need to change too, in particular they argue for greater male responsibility towards women and children, but in the process they should not relinquish their God-given (if unspecified) "maleness". Indeed this positive maleness, helped to fruition by women's complementary role, that is the best guarantee of security and happiness for the sexes and society. Feminism therefore goes 'too far' by challenging the divinely ordained differences between men and women, i.e. the heterostructure of gender. In this view, by questioning the complementarity of, men and women, "extreme" feminism is both "anti-male" and ultimately goes against women's most basic interests.


So what does all of this have to say to those concerned with the future of the New Right in Britain? Firstly, I think it demonstrates again that there are important divergences within groups that have been collectively identified as the 'moral right'. 'Moral right' women hold a range of theological and political positions and this makes a simple linkage between the 'moral' and the political right difficult. However this difficulty is in part dependent on the definition of politics being used. I would argue that all the activists are on the 'right' in some key senses of the political.

Specifically, it is in response to the challenges of 'diversity', centred around the rise of 'identity' and sexual politics, that the placing of pro-family activists on the 'right' may be valid. Maitland has argued, for example, that neo-evangelical radical conservatism tends to 'an almost desperate avoidance of difference' based on the idea that lives belong to God, not to individual will (Maitland 1992:40). Others have defined the broader 'right' as characterised by 'relations of domination' (Guillamin, 1988:22), which construct as well as include the 'natural'. The moral lobby could therefore be portrayed as on the right in competing for the power to preserve a particular, view of a sexual and moral order as 'natural' (Seidel, 1988). In particular they have been seen as opposed to the socially constructionist accounts of sexuality and gender, offered by feminists and the gay and lesbian movements (Weeks, 1991). As such, this opposition is not confined to the traditional political right, but rather demands a different understanding of 'left' and 'right'. Studying the tensions and commonalities within this wider notion of the 'right', in particular as notions of 'left' and 'right' in the area of sexual politics become more complex and contested, remains an important project for sociologists and feminists.

Secondly, it seems to me that we are unlikely to see extensive moral lobby activism that actively opposes women's formal equality in the public sphere, as has been the case in the United States. Klatch (1987) argues that socially conservative women in the United States often speak in terms of their common interests as women, but they do not agree that these interests are served by "feminism". My research reveals a more complex relationship to notions of feminism that varies among moral lobby women in Britain. I would argue that this is in part because supporters within some of groups have engaged with Christian and liberal feminism, and reaped the benefits in their own lives.

Much of the apparent support for "feminisms" by pro-family women could be attributed to political sophistication and pragmatism, however, I would argue that this insufficiently accounts for all the perspectives I encountered. The opposition to feminism is simultaneously shaped by it, and in this way aspects of feminist agendas are taken on board both from political necessity and as clarifying previously hidden or unarticulated positions. However, whatever their stated relationship to Christian or secular feminisms, the majority of the moral lobby women shared the belief that men and women were, by Divine plan, different form one another in some essential way.

As Faye Ginsberg (1989) noted in relation to pro-life women in the United States, many moral lobby women in Britain 'seem to be both essentialists and social constructionists on the issue of gender, in that their idea of gender appears to conflate the concepts of ' ascribed and achieved statuses' (Shrage, 1994:69). In this view, 'woman' (and indeed 'man') is both a bodily attribute of being and a cultural and social category (Shrage, 1994). The conflation occurs when bodily attributes, like the ability to bear children are taken to imply the social characteristics of historically specific patterns of motherhood. My research suggests that when 'moral right' women disagree amongst themselves in terms of what it means to be a 'woman' it is primarily in relation to the 'achieved' rather than the 'ascribed' status of women. Some moral right women are able to disagree with and challenge social and cultural norms associated with womanhood and motherhood, but nonetheless believe that womanhood resides somewhere, that is it is not solely a social construct, rather this womanhood is part of God's plan for nature. From my research I would suggest, following Wittig (1992), that where womanhood resides is in heterosexuality. That is that by becoming heterosexual one becomes a woman as God intended. This was demonstrated by the finding that although the most 'liberal' women in my research could accept alternate divisions of domestic labour between men and women, equality within the public sphere and to an extent heterosexual relations outside of the confines of the nuclear, married family (Luff, 1997 ), they still drew the line at any critique of heterosexuality per se. On the issue of the importance of the hetero/homosexual binary, the activists are clearly aligned with the 'right'.

By continuing to police heterosexuality, as for example the on-going campaigns around Section 28 and reproductive issues demonstrate, the moral lobby continue to restrict women's choices (and, of course, men's) whatever may be said about support for some forms of feminism. In this sense, there is still a 'spiritual war' being waged for the nation's morals and, to return to the points made earlier by a CARE activist, it behoves all involved (whether voluntarily or not) to clarify their own positions. In recent years, feminists have repeatedly called for a full articulation of an alternative morality in response to the rise of the right (Bland, 1985; Abbott and Wallace, 1992) and much is being done within feminism and within wider sociology to "invent moralities" (Weeks, 1995) and outline alternative ethical positions. Continuing to develop and debate our alternative and various moral understandings in our response to the 'moral right' remains, I would suggest, important sociological and feminist work at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


1See Abbott and Wallace (1992) and Smith (1994) both of whom use the term "New Right" to cover both the economic, social and moral forces of the right in contemporary Britain.

2This of course is a increasing dilemma for feminists themselves, as "feminisms" have proliferated. There are also important debates around the use of "feminist" for Black women, with some Black women preferring "womanist" (see Hill Collins, 1991; Bhavnani, 1993 for discussion of related issues). Many of the women therefore tap into a wider dilemma of what feminism is in the current context.

3In thinking of how to express this idea I was struck by De Hart's discussion (1991) of Phyllis Schlafly's idea of "benign discrimination" in relation to the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000