In keeping with our commitment to promoting critical conversations about the complexity and diversity of sexuality in the past, NOTCHES is pleased to introduce Archives of Desire. This new feature focuses on primary sources and how historians interpret them.
In June 1977, 10,000 conservative religious women across the United States opened their mailboxes and found the Happiness of Womanhood’s (HOW) monthly newspaper, a page of which is pictured below. HOW, a right-wing women-led grassroots organization created in 1970 with chapters in all fifty states, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and also worked against abortion rights, sex education, and gay rights. In each monthly installment, HOW’s newsletters encapsulated the conservative religious and cultural worlds of its members. Recipes ran alongside legislative updates; beauty tips interspersed political diatribes; Bible verses framed clipped news articles. HOW’s leaders used the newsletter to package and distribute news and information to its grassroots members, creating the political reality to which these women responded. Looking at just one page of HOW’s monthly newsletter illuminates how fears of changing sexual mores shaped HOW’s women’s worldview and mobilized their politics in the 1970s.
As the historian Lisa Duggan has argued, “the spatial arrangements and explanatory modes of the newspaper shape readers’ commonsense perceptions of the world.” HOW’s newsletters did the same for its readers, shaping and capitalizing on their worldviews. A news account of a San Francisco program to “sensitize” public school students to homosexuality understandably aroused the ire of the traditionalist evangelical, Mormon, and Catholic women of HOW. Likewise, a report on different government strategies to deal with population growth, including population control, fit squarely with these women’s fears about a socialist world order that would, through forced abortions and sterilization, turn women into sexless automatons for the state.
As homemakers, busy raising children and active in their churches, many of HOW’s women admitted they knew little about politics until some alarming event – like the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment or the legalization of federal abortion rights – jarred them into activism. They now believed that staying informed was critical to protecting their families and the nation and sought to stay abreast of the most important issues. The HOW newsletter provided that service.
Drawing from a wide range of sources, HOW’s newsletter knit together its own information hierarchy. Here, a news article from the mainstream Washington Post could sit alongside a report from the obscure Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, together forming a cohesive dispatch from the sexual revolution’s battle lines. By curating this content, HOW crafted a particular political reality and disseminated it to thousands of neophyte activists. (Notice also the underlined passages of each article and how these highlighted sections allowed the HOW newsletter writers to recast the objective detachment of a news or science article into the stuff for political outrage.)
Historians have richly documented the ideological worlds of conservative religious women and their sexual politics in modern America. In thinking about how political movements are made, the HOW newsletter reminds us that logistical and physical efforts underpin any political endeavor as much as intellectual work may call it forward. As we consider our sources, it is vital to reckon with their material nature and also their modes of production. This page from a HOW newsletter shows us that beyond the content, women stitched together a sexual politics with scissors and a Xerox machine, uniting a movement through both ideas and Scotch tape.
Archives of Desire features select primary sources and highlights how historians interpret them. We encourage our readers to share their fascinating archival finds and to engage in critical conversations about the complexity and diversity of sex and sexuality in the past. You can find our guidelines for Archives of Desire here. Interested in submitting a piece for this series? Send an email to NotchesBlog@gmail.com
Neil J. Young is an editor at Notches and specializes in post-1945 religion and politics. His book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2015. Young’s research has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, American Quarterly, and in Axel R. Schäfer’s Evangelicals and the 1960s. He writes frequently for publications, including the New York Times, Slate, and the Huffington Post. He tweets from @NeilJYoung17
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