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What is anti-feminist therapy and should we worry about its spread?

A new breed of life coaches and influencers are offering to convert women from the ‘cancer’ of mainstream feminism and teach us our ‘proper roles’ as wifely helpmeets. Should we worry about the rise of anti-feminist coaching, asks Sally Howard…

It’s one of the tragedies of the contemporary culture wars that feminism, a movement that sought to expand women’s right to choose the lives they wish to lead, is commonly misrepresented as foreclosing women’s right to choose to be stay-at-home mothers. Second-wave feminists railed against ‘women’s work’ – the unpaid mopping, meal-preparation and bum-wiping that fell to women on the basis of the shape of our genitals – but supported women’s right to be protected by society if they decided to define themselves through this work.

This was the point of movements such as ‘Wages for Housework’ that argued all of us are devalued if care and reproductive labour is seen as not-work; rather as a naturally given act of women’s love.

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Today, a vicious culture war is playing out across social media around the roles that society ascribes to women. On one side are the women who position themselves as traditionalists – trad, anti-feminists or women of traditional values. They define themselves in opposition to perceived enemies they dub ‘hardcore feminists’, to whom they attribute a range of ills, from child delinquency to rising divorce rates and the devaluation of motherhood

In tandem with this feminist backlash, a lively advisory ecosystem has grown up: traditionalism influencers, authors and life coaches who offer everything from one-on-one coaching to video tutorials and life advice to women seeking to enter the traditionalist fold. 

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Advisers such as Erin Harrison – who offers tips to would-be traditional homemakers through her ‘virtuous living’ and mothering ebooks, Keeper Of The Homestead blog and Facebook Live talk show – prescribe the tonic of being ‘scared straight’ by the negative consequences (eg single motherhood, loneliness and poverty) that might befall women if they don’t convert to traditional world views, by rejecting the ‘selfishness’ inherent in feminist ideology.

“Femininity and feminism are two polar opposite ideologies,” Harrison tells Stylist of her position. “One ideology embraces the creator’s role for women which produces life and selflessness, the other produces discontentment, dissatisfaction, selfishness and pride. The most useful thing women can do is recognise the pride and sin of self-service that’s the source of their unhappiness.”

Chloe Rose was six months pregnant and anxious about an impending antenatal appointment when a Christian counsellor delivered the blow that floored her self-confidence throughout the early months of motherhood. “She told me that my husband shouldn’t have assured me that everything would be OK with the pregnancy if that was not God’s will and that I had been polluted by a ‘modern prosperity gospel’,” says Rose, who’s 27 and based in Indiana in the US.

“At the end of the session she [the coach] told me to go home and think about the question: ‘How does it feel to think about yourself so much?’, Chloe recalls, adding: “I went home and sobbed.”

Kerry Sambrook, 29 and based in West Yorkshire, turned to a traditionalism life coach in 2019, after she decided to leave her hairdressing job to become a stay-at-home mum supported by her husband. “I began to feel that people were looking down on me for being ‘just a housewife’ or somehow a gold-digger,” she says, adding that she drifted away from her closest group of friends because of her decision to permanently give up paid work. “I felt I lived in an alternate universe because I didn’t want to put my son into nursery,” she adds. “Even my mother-in-law disapproved.”

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Sambrook started following online traditionalism groups and US homemaking bloggers, she explains, to “feel less alone”. Browsing in 2018, she came across No Greater Joy, a controversial family and marriage counselling network and publishing arm run by husband and wife, Debi and Michael Pearl.

The Pearls advocate tough parenting of small children – including corporal punishment – and wifely submission to their husbands as the foundations of familial happiness, as detailed in their controversial co-authored book To Train Up A Child, and Debi’s 2004 bestseller Created To Be His Helpmeet. The latter famously schools women to obey their husband’s word and sexual demands at risk of becoming a single mother who ‘dress[es] cheaply’, has ‘ragged’ hair and ‘dark circles’ under her eyes”.

Through the Pearls’ Facebook page, Sambrook found a link to a traditionalism coach based in the US, promising to help women like her who yearned to be respected as good homemakers, but who felt that society didn’t value their role. “We had an online session,” Sambrook recalls, “and I really liked her approach. She gave me a chart of sayings to put up in the kitchen that helped me to practise gratitude for my husband and kids.” 

Sambrook ditched her uniform jeans and T-shirts for feminine maxi dresses, and severed contact with friends that she felt disapproved of her life choices, choosing instead to create new networks among online traditionalism groups. “[The coach] told me to ‘get comfortable with shallow connections’,” Sambrook explains. “So I stopped talking to new people I meet in real life about being a homemaker. It was easier to just stay quiet and not feel judged.”

Like many traditionalists who feel themselves marginalised by a feminist mainstream, Sambrook was drawn to concepts doing the rounds on traditionalism social media such as: ‘toxic F.O.O.’ (family of origin) – the traditionalist term for family members who don’t support their transition to conservative lifestyles; ‘coming out of your prayer closet’ – finding a Christian god; ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ – a term for a famous biblical passage on being an ‘excellent wife’ that’s become shorthand for the ideal of being a submissive wife.

Ginny Irene, 37 and based in the US, reached out to a conservative counsellor when her husband of 10 years grew jealous and controlling. Over several months, the therapist advised Irene to persevere with her unhappy marriage. “She recommended books that told me to respect [her husband] more and give him sex whenever he wanted, and my marriage would improve,” she says. 

It was only when Irene broke with the counsellor and found a formally trained therapist that she realised that her marriage was emotionally abusive and that the first counsellor had influenced her to see the state of her marriage as her own failure.

 “Proper therapy helped me heal and file those [divorce] papers,” she says. She adds that the coach’s reference to the ‘Jezebel’ – the famous fallen woman of the old testament and a figure frequently invoked by Christian traditionalists in relation to single mothers – was also “upsetting”. 

Despite the dangers of undertaking therapy conducted by untrained counsellors and coaches, and the messages of womanly forbearance promoted by authors such as Pearl and competitor JoBeth Hooker (whose book Your Body Is Not Your Own rails against feminism as ‘the serpent’), traditional identity-based therapists are here to stay.

Book cover of Sally Howard's "The Home Stretch"
Sally Howard's "The Home Stretch"

There are 55 UK-based therapists listed on a network of ‘Christianity coaches’, and individuals using the terms ‘counsellor, ‘therapist’ or ‘coach’ do not need to be trained or regulated, despite the UK Council for Psychotherapy’s position that professional therapy should put the client’s needs and life situation first, rather than offering therapy grounded in any particular worldview. 

Alena Pettitt, who runs trad-wife etiquette school The Darling Academy in The Cotswolds, is at pains to point out that not all members of the traditionalism community agree with the idea of ‘feminist conversion’ – a term doing the rounds on traditionalism groups and one that calls to mind notorious gay conversion therapies.

In Pettitt’s view, cultural ideas of what’s properly ‘Christian’ should never be used to enforce a narrow view of women’s roles. “The Bible shows women in a variety of roles, from fearsome leaders, to protectors, to housewives,” Pettitt explains.

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In traditionalism Facebook groups, women recount their journeys away from a mainstream feminism worldview they describe as “cancerous”, “self-exulting” and “the work of the devil” and towards a set of values often positioned as a reestablishment of the ‘natural order’. 

“These man-hating single cat ladies attack successful women who are married,” says an admin of one traditionalism group with 1,300 members, in a typical posting that characterises feminists as misandrists who’ve been unlucky in the heterosexual marriage market. 

“I used to be a radical polyandrous feminist,” says another user. “But then I wised up. So many good women are completely brainwashed and corrupted by [feminism].”

Timandra Harkness, a broadcaster whose latest series, Steelmanning (BBC Radio 4), tries to restore reason and civility to public debate, says that identity politics groups, be they feminists or Christian traditionalists, often define themselves in opposition to other identity groups, which can lead to the need to imagine enemies where no such enemies exist. “Too many social issues are becoming about tribes and identities, instead of people finding what they have in common and defending their shared interests,” she says. “So we spend more time arguing about definitions than about what it would take to achieve equality or freedom.”

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Chloe Rose, who now describes herself as a ‘religious abuse survivor’, was referred by her midwife to a trained therapist who eventually diagnosed her with generalised anxiety disorder and postpartum anxiety. She believes that there is a place for overtly traditional therapists, but only when these therapists are advising on matters such as Christian scripture, and not treating people with mental health problems or intervening in relationship issues.

Looking back, Ginny Irene, who describes herself as a “Jesus feminist single mum”, thinks the counsellor who advised her to stick it out in her abusive marriage was ill-informed, but not badly intentioned. “I believe the untrained feel they are helping people with their problems but unless you’re trained to see the underlying reasons, your counselling will be superficial at best.”

Today, a trained counsellor herself, Irene would like to see greater regulation of Christian counselling. She would like to see vetting of those advertising life-coaching through social media platforms and Facebook advertisements, which often use bait and switch marketing methods that lure clients with promises of success in marriage or meeting a man. She adds: “For me, it was a lucky escape, but there are a lot of women out there who might not be so lucky.” 

The Home Stretch (Or Why The Gender Revolution Stalled At The Kitchen Sink) by Sally Howard is available now, £9.99, Atlantic Books.

Main image: Donald Iain Smith via Getty/book cover courtesy of Atlantic Books/Sally Howard.

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