For most Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a novel (or Hulu show) about a dystopian future where women are chattel whose only purpose is to procreate. For a surprising number of American women in positions of cultural, legal, and legislative power, it is an instruction manual on how to remake America in the image of Gilead, a.k.a. America 2.0 in the novel and TV series.
These women inspire a future where not only is abortion illegal under all circumstances, so are all forms of birth control for women, other than the rhythm method. They pine for a godly America where homosexual acts are a felony and where LGBT leaders and abortion providers are arrested. Attendance of (Christian) religious services might as well be mandatory. Supportive parents of LGBT youth would be shamed as child abusers, losing custody of their children.
Like any movement, every idea isn't shared by every woman. And it would be easy to dismiss these statements as nothing more than fringe elements. Except they’re not. They come from, respectively, top women at the Family Research Council, a female elected official in a state House, and one of the most popular Christian bloggers on Facebook. The FRC is a multimillion-dollar anti-LGBT hate group with an expensive office on G Street in downtown Washington, D.C., and was well represented on the Trump transition team.
Many of these views are also pushed by mainstream conservative media outlets, and the authors are frequently women. The Federalist is perhaps the best normalizer of the radical opinions of women who want a world like the one described above. Its founder and publisher, Ben Domenech, appears on CBS’s Face the Nation most Sundays. The Federalist goes to some lengths to feature women writers whose positions on abortion, birth control, transgender people, Islam, and religion are in line with Gilead’s and the individuals cited above. One essay asserted that women who choose not to have children are both selfish and have a “mental disorder.” Frequently the online publication steps right up to the line of suggesting that various groups (transgender people, abortion providers) should be eliminated, but don’t actually say it or how it would be done.
In social media, perhaps no one better exemplifies the Real Housewives of Gilead more than “The Activist Mommy” (a.k.a. Grace Elizabeth Johnston). She has a Facebook page with 150,000 followers and a popular YouTube channel. She is married to Dr. Patrick Johnston (more on him later) and has 10 home-schooled children. She is best known for video diatribes against transgender people, Muslims, the women’s marches, feminists, acceptance of gay people, abortion, and birth control.
She regularly pickets Planned Parenthood clinics and posts pictures of gay people along with the caption “Leviticus 18:22” (which got her a temporary ban from Facebook and made her into an instant online martyr for Christianity, of course). She advocates “using your womb as a weapon” for God.
Her husband is even more radical. He opposed all abortions, and is leading a crusade to convince people to try to carry ectopic pregnancies (the number 1 cause of maternal mortality in the developing world) to term, based on an anecdote in a journal article from 1994, which was later proved to be completely falsified. He recommends executing everyone on death row immediately, and making homosexuality and providing abortions (or aiding those who do) a capital crime. The sentence under a Patrick Johnston administration would be carried out immediately via biblical methods, saying, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' punishments will replace our failed system." Other lesser crimes, like bare breasts in public (which arguably includes breast feeding), would be punishable with public flogging.
He’s also a doctor who opposes most vaccinations, (including polio, MMR, and pertussis), and recommends prayer as the preferred treatment for depression. He also suggests that people are mentally ill if they don’t want to own guns, and that people are fat because they are sinful. He states that “if you do not spank your kids you do not love them.” Dr. Johnston has also published racist articles stating that “the greatest threat to the African American community is the sin of African Americans.”
It would be easy to dismiss him, but he ran a credible campaign for District 94 of the Ohio State House in 2008 and his novel The Reliant is being turned into a movie starring Eric Roberts and Kevin Sorbo. He wrote another dystopian novel that envisioned how a glorious new Gilead would arise in a clash of cultures, “where the superiority of the principles of Christianity prevail over a plethora of vicious opponents.”
Like the Duggars, the Johnstons apparently ascribe to parts of the “quiverfull” movement, which envisions a large number of children as arrows to send out into the world. The movement emphasizes submission to your husband in all things, including sex. Thus, the Johnston espouse unusual beliefs about consent between spouses, especially when the husband wants sex. Marital advice obtained from their “family” blog states, “Don’t you want your wife to have sex with you even if she doesn’t feel like it? Well do unto others what you would have them do unto you. We have to do things we don’t feel like doing all the time.”
It’s not hard to imagine these spouses “preparing” themselves like Offred did for the Commander.
For its part, the quiverfull movement also encourages husbands to use violence to “chastise” their wives and children when they are disobedient. Bruce Ware, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, told a Texas audience that domestic violence stems from women’s lack of submission. Women are also forbidden to work outside the home, which Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had to tap-dance around when explaining his support for Sarah Palin to a quiverfull crowd. (On these two points, the Johnstons contacted The Advocate after publication of this commentary to say they don't support violence to chastise wives, or barring women from working outside the home.)
The effects of living in such an environment are described in chilling detail by those who escaped. The entire premise of submission, violence, and isolation creates a dysfunctional relationship dynamic which frequently results in sexual, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse. The lack of accountability for men when committing even the most heinous forms of abuse was made evident when it was revealed that Josh Duggar (who was working for the Family Research Council at the time the news hit) had molested four of his younger sisters and one other girl when he was a youth.
He was never prosecuted for these crimes, after a family friend (and also part of the quiverfull movement) in the police department gave him a “stern talk.”
This brings us back full circle. There are plenty of women working toward bringing about their own brand of Gilead. Their views, and the policies they are pushing for, are now deep within the conservative mainstream. Conservative mass-media outlets like The Federalist support many of their political positions.
So does the Family Research Council, which has included prominent staffers who were a part of the quiverfull movement. Numerous high-ranking officials with the FRC were on the Trump transition team, including Ken Blackwell, Kay Cole James, Ken Klukowski, and Ed Meese. Vice President Mike Pence has had the full-throated support of the FRC for his efforts to ban abortion and birth control, and his endorsement laws targeting LGBT people in Indiana when he was governor there.
Additionally, Tony Perkins, president of the FRC, helped draft the draconian social platform of the Republican National Committee at the 2016 convention, which includes a demand that lawmakers use religion as a guide when legislating, teaching the Bible in schools, banning transgender people from bathrooms, declaring pornography a public health crisis, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and a personhood amendment effectively banning all abortion and almost all birth control.
As a result, the Trump administration has appointed four women (Charmaine Yoest, Teresa Manning, Valerie Huber, and Katy Talento) to key positions at the Department of Health and Human Services whose views are nearly identical to Elizabeth Johnston’s in most areas. They are all uniformly opposed to all birth control for women and spread false science about it.
Yoest and her husband had a blog full of viciously anti-transgender screeds, which, just like the Johnstons, they tried to delete when they got famous. Katy Talento has written articles at The Federalist arguing that birth control is dangerous to women’s health and should be banned by the Food and Drug Administration. Valerie Huber was the leader of an abstinence-only education lobbying group that spreads misinformation about sexual health in its teaching materials, and has argued that transgender children should be driven into the closet (for their own good, of course). Teresa Manning was a staff attorney with the FRC who opposes abortion under all circumstances (including when continuing a pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother), would send women who have abortions to prison, claims birth control doesn’t work, and once said family planning is “something that occurs between a husband and a wife and God.”
These women are in charge of the part of the federal government responsible for ensuring that women have access to reproductive health care, and they’re in complete alignment ideologically with the religious fundamentalists who want to bring Gilead to you. The link between the views of religious radicals who want a country that looks like Atwood’s dystopia and those of people in high-level positions in the federal government is clear.
Their radical views are popular with a staggering number of people and well represented in conservative media, the Republican platform, Congress and the Trump administration. They are working toward a world where the ideal is that being gay is illegal and transgender people are gone. They desire a country where women with an ectopic pregnancy face a choice of an excruciating death or fleeing to another county and never being able to return to the United States because they would face charges for murder. They want a country where ideally women cannot work outside the home, husbands have dominion over their wives and children, and women ought not refuse sex within marriage or even decide whether or not to have children. They long for a country where fundamentalist Christianity is the official state religion, and complications during pregnancy are likely to be fatal.
One cannot help but think Patrick and Elizabeth Johnston would be more than happy to fill the roles of Commander Waterford and Serena Joy.
But that’s not the scary part. There were always ambitious and ruthless religious zealots like this, regardless of the religion or culture.
The scary part is that their views are now the mainstream for the party that controls almost every facet of our government at the state and federal level. The scary part is that most women don’t know what the goals of women like Elizabeth Johnston and Charmaine Yoest are. Most women have no idea that if their ideas prevail, the end state looks like Gilead. The scary part is that so many women who really don’t want to live in Gilead are cheering them on, because they hate feminists, Muslims, and queers just like they do.
The scary part is how clearly we can see Gilead from here.
CLARIFICATION: Elizabeth Johnston, known as "The Activist Mommy," contacted The Advocate to disagree with ideas from others cited in this commentary. In an email, the couple said they disagree with any teaching that says husbands can use violence to “chastise” their wives, or that implies men can have sex with their wives without consent. Elizabeth Johnston said she and her husband also don’t agree with the idea of mandatory church service. The Activist Mommy says she works outside the home and that she and her husband do not agree with any teaching that says women should be forbidden from work outside the home. Elizabeth Johnston says she and her husband also have not supported calls to arrest LGBT activists. Although the Johnstons oppose public nudity, they say they advocate breast feeding in public. Although the Johnstons want many forms of birth control for women made illegal, they said they support condoms for men.
CORRECTION: A list of things Patrick Johnston has suggested should be capital crimes had included illegal immigration, but it has now been removed because the Johnstons tell The Advocate they have not supported making illegal immigration a capital crime. The Johnstons also said crucifixion should not be included among a list of punishments they advocate using in the criminal justice system, and it has been removed. We apologize for the error.
EDITOR'S NOTE: "The Activist Mommy," Elizabeth Johnston, had posted a blog in response to this commentary piece, which she calls "lies." It ends with this call to action: "The LGBT gestapo is the most intolerant and hateful 'community' in our country. They are a loud minority that is changing the very fabric of our culture. Why are we letting them? When states vote for traditional marriage and religious freedom, why are we letting this loud and ungodly minority shut us down and take our ground? Link arms with me and let’s change the world together!"