Concerned Women For America
Ronnee Schreiber, author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women & American Politics, points out in her CNN op-ed, that we should not underestimate Sarah Palin’s appeal to women. In the excerpt below from Schreiber’s book, we learn about one of the most powerful women’s organizations in America, the conservative Concerned Women for America. Schreiber shows us how CWA has the organizing power to rally behind Palin and other politicians.
Concerned Women for America (CWA) was founded in San Diego in 1979 by Beverly LaHaye, a mother of four who used to organize marriage seminars with her husband. Along with its 500,000 members, the organization employs approximately thirty national staff and boasts an $8 million annual budget. It has a diverse funding base…which has been considered a contributing factor to its longevity. Its founding was initially spurred by LaHaye’s desire to oppose the ERA and to contest feminist claims of representing women. Indeed, its strong objection to feminist activism on behalf of women is clearly articulated in the information it sends to its new and potential members: LaHaye watched a television interview with Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women. Realizing that Betty claimed to speak for the women of America, Mrs. LaHaye was stirred to action. She knew the feminists’ anti-God, anti-family rhetoric did not represent her beliefs, or those of the vast majority of women.
The organization’s launch and subsequent growth coincided with the politicization of the Christian Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, social conservatives were avidly mobilizing to oppose legalized abortion, homosexuality, and communism and to promote school prayer. Leaders like Jerry Falwell ably convinced conservative evangelicals to politicize their religious commitments. As Robert Wuthnow argues, the time was right for such mobilization to occur. In the mid- to late 1970s, criticism of the Vietnam War, legislative responses to Watergate, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions on issues like abortion meant that “morality came to be viewed as a public issue rather than in strictly private terms.” The election of an evangelical—Jimmy Carter—to the White House also gave prominence and visibility to those who identified with this religious tradition. Wuthnow argues that, for conservative evangelicals during this time, it felt “sensible” to become politically engaged and to promote their views on morality.
As the symbolic line between morality and politics blurred, conservative evangelicals “were no longer speaking as a sectarian group, but as representative[s] of values that were in the interest of all.” Under the leadership of activists like Richard Viguerie, religious right groups became familiar with, and adept at using, the latest communication, fundraising, and organizing techniques to rally constituents. Direct mail appeals containing “alarmist” messages about the evil effects of legal abortion and homosexuality startled and ultimately activated people. These religiously committed individuals had solid, close-knit social and church-based networks that also enabled effective mobilization, especially when local pastors used the pulpit to give political direction to their members. Constituents were encouraged to boycott media outlets that offended their moral sensibilities, and fundamentalist ministers were recruited into politics by leaders like Ed McAteer.
As we moved into the 1980s, acceptance from public figures like Ronald Reagan also helped to solidify the evangelicals’ base. With a tight and effective infrastructure, large mass mailing databases, and major media outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), they became a formidable political movement of which CWA was and is a major player. As a religiously based organization that opposes abortion and homosexuality, CWA is a social conservative interest group. Today, CWA has a professionally staffed office in Washington, DC, claims members in all fifty states, and professes to be the largest women’s organization in the United States. Although this book emphasizes how CWA frames its issue debates, the organization employs a host of tactics to effect political change. …
Building on the successful techniques used by Viguerie and others to mobilize conservative evangelicals in the 1970s, CWA continuously adapts new technology to get its message out and to attract new members. It broadcasts audio and visual materials over the Internet, offers podcasts and e-alerts, and frequently updates its polished and professional-looking Web site… Because of CWA’s large membership, its strength lies in part in its grassroots. The ability to communicate with and mobilize these adherents is essential for effective lobbying and public education campaigns. Through e-mail, periodicals like Family Voice, and its online broadcasts and Web site, its national staff work closely with the grassroots members to update them on legislative affairs and educate them to be activists…
…Its national office coordinates volunteers for its Project 535—a group of Washington, DC, area women who meet monthly to canvass lawmakers on issues of concern to the organization (the number 535 refers to the total members of the U.S. Congress). In 2007, for example, women urged legislators to oppose the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Through Project 535, women are trained to lobby, and new members are paired with seasoned activists as they walk the halls of Congress.
In addition to its lobbying and grassroots efforts, CWA houses the Beverly LaHaye Institute (BLI), a think tank devoted to publishing reports and assessing data on topics like abortion and motherhood. Janice Shaw Crouse, a former public relations professional and speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush, heads up the institute. To publicize its views, BLI produces “data digests,” semiannual briefs that evaluate research findings to promote its views. For example, in “Abortion: America’s Staggering Hidden Loss,” Crouse uses figures and charts from the Centers for Disease Control to highlight cases in which abortions are increasing and/or decreasing… In a similar vein, CWA works through its Culture and Family Issues unit to produce papers and reports that warn against homosexuality. Both are public education venues, established to offer alternatives to liberal and feminist think tanks like the prochoice Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). Unlike BLI, however, AGI conducts primary research on its topics of concern.
Another way for interest groups to have an impact is to form political action committees and raise money for those running for elected office. Because of its nonprofit status, CWA itself cannot directly endorse candidates, but under the name of Beverly LaHaye, it established the Concerned Women Political Action Committee (CWPAC) to allow CWA supporters a more direct voice in electoral outcomes. CWPAC distributed $127,000 in 2005 to candidates that support “conservative principles, values and integrity.” It is important to note the central Role that religion plays in this organization; conservative evangelical religious beliefs clearly unite and mobilize many of the organization’s members and leaders. Its stated mission, to “protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation,” exemplifies its theological convictions…