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Concerned Women for America: A Case Study

Background and contact information for Concerned Women for America, the largest Christian Right organization targeted at women.

by Steven Gardiner, Research Director, Coalition for Human Dignity

"Homosexuals expect society to embrace their immoral way of life. Worse yet, they are looking for new recruits!" - Beverly LaHaye, Concerned Women for America 5/92

Concerned Women for America
1015 Fifteenth St. N.W., Suite 1100
Washington, D.C. 20005
Phone: (202) 488-7000
Fax: (202) 488-0806

501(c)3 - Concerned Women for America Legal Defense Foundation
501(c)4 - Concerned Women for America, Inc.

Founded in 1979 by Beverly LaHaye, the wife of fundamentalist Baptist minister and Moral Majority co-founder Tim LaHaye, Concerned Women for America (CWA) is the largest Christian Right organization targeted at women. CWA representatives claim that it is the largest women's organization in the country. Membership estimates vary widely, from 350,000 to 750,000--depending on who's counting--but with a monthly newsletter (Family Voice) that is mailed to 200,000 subscribers, a daily syndicated radio show ("Beverly LaHaye Live") that reaches upwards of 350,000 people on twenty-eight stations nationwide, an annual budget of $10 million and what may be the most effective multi-issue, grassroots lobbying network in existence, Concerned Women for America is a force to be reckoned with.

While CWA has sought to portray itself as something of a "ladies auxiliary" to the efforts of male-led Christian Right organizations, the reality is rather different. LaHaye makes this abundantly clear in her 1984 book, Who But a Woman? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers) in which she argues that women have a special role to play in pushing the "pro-family" agenda forward. The story LaHaye tells about her political awakening and the origins of Concerned Women for America offers an idea of what this "special role" might be:

The year was 1978. Dutiful wife Beverly was lounging with her husband Tim in their San Diego living room, watching the evening news. Barbara Walters was interviewing feminist leader Betty Friedan. Friedan made the claim that her views represented those of a great many American women. LaHaye jumped up and declared, "Betty Friedan doesn't speak for me and I bet she doesn't speak for the majority of women in this country." It was then that she decided something had to be done to prevent feminists from destroying the family and the nation. She called a meeting, uncertain if anyone would show up. When twelve hundred women filled the hall, LaHaye concluded that "the majority of women out there don't agree with Betty Friedan and the ERA." (Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi, [New York: Crown Publishers, 1991], p. 247-248).

Though CWA is a multi-issue organization, its "special role" in the Christian Right has been that of an exemplary foil to the women's movement: the good, pro-family, "spirit-controlled" women, who, in LaHaye's words, are "truly liberated" because they are "totally submissive" to their husbands (The Spirit Controlled Woman, [Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1976], p. 71). CWA activists, though they may appear to be showing dangerous signs of independence, are in fact doing the will of their husbands and their Christian duty to promote pro-family values.

The Structure

Concerned Women for America, like most new Right institutions, is not one but, at least for tax purposes, two groups: Concerned Women for America Education and Legal Defense Foundation, a federal income-tax exempt 501(c)3 charitable organization confined to non-partisan, non- political grassroots lobbying; and Concerned Women for America, Inc., a 501(c)4 income-tax exempt corporation that can engage in non-partisan lobbying; e.g. in favor or opposition to a particular bill or ballot measure. The major difference between the two sorts of groups is that donations to a 501(c)3 organization are tax deductible, whereas donations to a 501(c)4 are not.

CWA national headquarters are located in Washington, D.C. and employ some 25 full-time staff people. In principle, and for the most part in fact, the national office controls not just CWA's philosophical direction, but directly instructs local chapters on which specific issues to act on --- although the local chapters maintain some autonomy with respect to addressing local issues.

How it Works

The well-known phrase "kitchen table activist" has its origins in a pamphlet entitled "How to Lobby From Your Kitchen Table," distributed by CWA beginning in the early years of the Reagan Administration. Borrowing a structure common in the fundamentalist/evangelical world from which most of the Concerned Women are drawn, the basic CWA unit is a "prayer chain." In the case of Concerned Women for America, a "prayer chain" does more than pray. Seven individuals, including a prayer leader, form a prayer group; seven such groups form the chain; and seven chains form a local chapter of CWA which is run under the direction of a chapter leader. Each chapter thus consists of fifty members. Chapters are under the direction of a regional director who reports to the national CWA headquarters. (Spiritual Warfare by Sara Diamond [Boston, South End Press, 1989]; see also "Kitchen Table Activists" in Interchange Report, by Kris Jacobs, Winter/Spring 1985).

Ideally, action directives come from CWA headquarters in the form of "Special Messages" from President LaHaye. When an important "pro-family" issue--e.g. abortion legislation, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, or gay rights--is about to come before Congress, CWA activates its "535 Program" (435 Representatives and 100 Senators). The program instructs all CWA members to drop an avalanche of letters and phone calls to legislators and public officials at both their Capitol Hill and home offices. The effects of such efficient organizing can be devastating as thousands of letters and phone calls bombard Capitol Hill in a matter of days. Legislators in both houses and in both parties, particularly those who depend on conservative support, know that a "wrong" vote on one of these hot issues will come back to haunt them at the next election. Even centrist legislators are affected by the deluge, regardless of their own opinions on an issue: the safest political position is often with the majority of the activists, as opposed to the majority of citizens or voters. They may not expect the support of the CWA crowd, but they definitely don't want to be targeted by them as a special enemy in the next election.

Though it is clear from the results that the Concerned Women chapter/prayer chain network does work, closer examination reveals an organization that is not quite as tightly organized as it pretends to be. For example, a call to the national office in Washington, D.C., asking for information about local chapters in the state of Oregon produced a claim that no active CWA chapters existed in Oregon at the time (February, 1993), and the suggestion that the caller might contact the district coordinator and con sider starting an Oregon Chapter.

Further inquiries with local Christian Right groups, however, eventually produced the name of a local Concerned Women organizer. This local CWA leader, one Beth Augee, a former legislative aide from Salem, Oregon, indicated a looser structure, focused more on the state legislature than on Congress and working with other Christian Right groups, particularly Eagle Forum, the other major Christian Right women's organization. When asked about the work of CWA locally in a recent interview (February 11, 1993), Augee responded:

For example, last period there was a child pornography or child abuse or what was it child pornography bill [before the legislature]. We got hold of ballot statistics, circulated the information, informed legislators, etc. We also work on issues like "No Special Rights" for homosexuals, what's been called the "gag rule" on abortion, and sex education in the schools.

Augee's version of the group structure, although not disagreeing with the official version, does come across as somewhat less grandiose, reflecting, no doubt, the difference between the organization as it appears on paper and how it actually works on the ground. In her words: "The group is made of Tprayer action chapters' formed around geographical areas, focused on writing letters and keeping track of legislative issues." She added that between legislative sessions they focus on "education of ourselves and others." This is not to say that CWA isn't effective; the results speak for themselves. Rather it suggests that the strict hierarchy CWA would like is difficult to maintain and the work that goes into a CWA mobilization likely involves more than just activating the chapter/prayer chains. In fact, many more people receive action alerts who have never been part of a prayer chain. This suggests that in addition to the chapter/prayer chain structure, there is also a good deal of direct mail that goes out from CWA headquarters to produce the waves of mail received around extremely hot issues such as Supreme Court nominations, NEA funding, or the proposed Executive Order ending the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. What are they so worried about? Though the focus of CWA has always been the women's movement, they are also active in opposing sex education, gay rights, drug and alcohol education, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and, of course, the Freedom of Choice Act. Until recently, LaHaye and CWA also spent a good deal of time fretting about communists. But apart from these issue positions, CWA is part of the Christian Right effort to change the way we structure our entire society; they are part of the effort to infiltrate and influence secular institutions of all sorts in an attempt to remake them in the image of their Biblical morality. As LaHaye put it in an interview with Ms. Magazine, "Yes, religion and politics do mix. America is a nation based on biblical principles. Christian values dominate our government. The test of those values is the Bible. Politicians who do not use the Bible to guide their public and private lives do not belong in office" (Feb. 1987). Feminist Propoganda? A case study in CWA organizing Perhaps the best way to understand the local impact of Concerned Women for America organizing is to look briefly at a case in point. In Arizona, the Governor's Office of Women's Services scheduled a forum in the city of Phoenix on March 8, 1992, in honor of International Women's Day. The panel of speakers for the event was composed of feminist activists and scholars. The Arizona regional CWA office saw this as a threat and mobilized. Cathy Herrod, CWA regional director for Arizona, sent letters to Governor Symington, several key legislators, and the Office of Women's Services. The IWD committee capitulated to pressure and agreed to include "pro-family" speakers on the panel. At the same time, the local Phoenix chapter hastily put together an exhibit at the event, distributing action alerts asking people to write to the Governor and state legislators, urging them to scrutinize the use of tax dollars to promote feminist propaganda (Family Voice, April 1992, p.26). Earthshaking results obviously do not always come about as the direct effect of CWA organizing. In the Phoenix case, only a single event was affected, and only by being altered to accommodate additional speakers and points of view. However, this is misleading. The fact that CWA was able to gain a hearing in the bastion of their enemies is of far less importance than two key victories: 1) the ease with which the governor's office and Office of Women's Services capitulated--before CWA had a chance to mobilize its prayer chains and letter writing campaigns, and 2) the effects of the aftermath of the event and the challenge to the very existence of the Office of Women's Services. It is with exactly this type of small, easily overlooked victory that successful political movements are built. Far away from the scrutiny of a Presidential election or high-profile piece of legislation, local institutions: school boards, libraries, hospitals, citizens' commissions, neighborhood associations and precinct-level political organs are the key battlegrounds in grassroots organizing. Each victory legitimizes the agenda of the victorious group, forcing allies and opponents alike to accommodate themselves to the demonstrated power of a group like CWA. Conclusion The politics of Concerned Women for America are the politics of reaction. Though the Christian Right might have emerged in reaction to any number of social movements of the last thirty years, CWA is inconceivable without the women's movement. Though its agenda goes beyond anti-feminism and CWA is thoroughly involved in the struggles of the Christian Right, it is impossible to understand CWA's "special role" in the movement without understanding its position as the right wing foil to feminism. Taking cues from the rest of the movement, CWA has developed its own pro-active rhetoric pro-family, pro-life, pro-chastity, etc. This does not change the underlying reality. At the same time, since the bottom line is political power, CWA has jumped into the middle of the current anti-gay backlash for example, leading a successful effort to stop a City of Boston ordinance which would have extended family leave benefits to gay and lesbian partners of municipal employees. They are, in short, willing to work on issues that will be effective organizing tools for their ultimate political ends.

Contributors : Steven Gardiner
Last modified 2006-08-28 03:10 PM

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