At a 2015 “Empowering Parents” symposium hosted by Utahns Against Common Core, Carolina Allen gave a presentation to the assembled “small government” advocates on the work of Big Ocean Women, an organization she founded dedicated to advancing the values of “maternal feminism.”
Maternal feminism, as defined on Big Ocean’s website, emphasizes the roles of women as mothers and caregivers in the struggle for rights and equality, highlighting that these are the more “natural” (i.e. legitimate) roles for women, and should therefore be prioritized.
Its adherents see other forms of feminism—namely, those that advocate for LGBTQ people (especially transgender women), access to abortion and contraceptives, and comprehensive sex ed (something Allen refers to as “extreme sexual indoctrination for school-aged children”)—as antithetical and in opposition to motherhood, “traditional” women, and families.
“Maternal feminism,” she explained, “hijacks the other feminism.” For the last four years, Allen and Big Ocean have primarily focused on bringing that maternal feminism to the United Nations, aiming to advance a “family rights” agenda.
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Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that the family is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and it is “entitled to protection by society and the State.” Groups on the religious right, including Big Ocean, see the family as being under threat, and they point toward LGBTQ people and the “culture of death” (meaning sexual and reproductive health and rights) as the primary corrupting influences.
Such a framework strategically functions to enlist world governments in fulfilling their responsibilities as outlined in Article 16 to “protect” families by attacking (or simply erasing) “anti-family” forces, including LGBTQ people and reproductive rights.
Allen founded Big Ocean in 2014, after she attended a meeting at the UN and saw what she described to a Utah outlet as a “moral tsunami” of “devastating proposals and … harmful ideologies that are negatively influencing children and families in the United States and around the world.”
“I witnessed the workings and dealings of many who claimed the word ‘feminist,'” Allen reflected. “They essentially ran the show.”
From Allen’s perspective, “They’ve been ruling things and making things work, and they’ve made a lot of progress. Now what we need to do is go there, and stand there as a light and shine our light ever so bright.”
Following her first visit to the UN, Allen described feeling defeated and broken. Feminism—a word she’d identified with since childhood—had become “indescribably bitter.” However, Allen determined that rather than relinquish a term that no longer resonated with her, she would “redefine and restore feminism.”
Today, Big Ocean Women is deeply involved at the UN, bringing dozens of women each year to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to engage and advocate under the banner of maternal feminism.
Alongside other conservative advocacy groups, Big Ocean primarily concentrates on affecting language in UN documents pertaining to the family, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Its advocacy is packaged as a “pro-family” effort that prioritizes the wellbeing of women and children, but Big Ocean is selective about what types of families deserve acknowledgement and support. At best, families that fall outside the prescribed “natural” formula of a married, heterosexual, procreative couple are simply considered “less than ideal,” but families created by gay and lesbian couples, single parents, unmarried couples, and other “nontraditional” formations are often portrayed as threats.
Denying the existence, safety, or wellness of families outside a heterosexual norm is a strategy to effectively write “nontraditional” families out of existence by denying them visibility, access to resources, and rights. It’s a form of policy violence, and because countries that have ratified an international agreement assume a legal obligation to uphold those agreements, these efforts have global implications.
The UN doesn’t have armed forces of its own, so binding policy agreements can’t be enforced by “traditional” means of coercion, but they can be an important tool for leveraging pressure and action on behalf of oppressed and marginalized communities. For example, in June the UN’s human rights office condemned the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from migrant families entering the United States, adding to the avalanche of pressure that ultimately motivated the president to end the practice (at least on paper).
But so long as the UN’s definition of family fails to acknowledge the validity of LGBTQ families, the implications of any efforts aimed at protecting families will fall short of being universal. Appreciating the significance of this gap in rights, LGBTQ and gender justice activists have engaged with the UN for years, resisting the religious right’s attacks and advocating for additional clarifying language within human rights documents that would acknowledge a “diversity of families” in order to extend the rights, privileges, and protections granted to married, heterosexual families to those which are defined by other bonds. These efforts, however, have been thwarted by right-wing forces claiming that “diversity of families” advocacy is part of a sinister plot to destroy “real” families (i.e. the married, heterosexual, procreative variety).
Now there are players on both sides of this fight claiming the mantle of feminism.
In a 2017 report titled “Rights at Risk: Observatory on the Universality of Rights Trends,” the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) observed, “Conservative actors portray feminist activists as advocates of a self-serving, Westernized, sexualized form of radical ideology, and themselves as advocates for ‘real’ women around the world, protecting their dignity and links to family and the home. In this way, they cast the feminist movement as a ‘radical feminist agenda’ versus anti-rights actors, who are portrayed as the true saviors of women’s rights, and in some cases, of feminism.”
AWID, which describes itself as a “global, feminist membership organization,” named Big Ocean as one of several new oppositional organizations on the scene with a “friendlier face.”
Allen couldn’t agree more. Describing Big Ocean’s strategy at the CSW in her 2015 presentation, she said, “We don’t do things the way [feminist groups] do—they do a lot of teeth gnashing and fist raising. We go and we show up … we went [to the UN] with our 25 women and we smiled and we greeted everybody and everybody fell in love with us!”
Religious conservatives have often portrayed feminists as angry and aggressive. In a fundraising letter, Christian televangelist Pat Robertson once described feminism as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Rhetoric like this serves to paint feminism as inaccessible and unappealing to women who are or want to be married to men, aspire to be mothers, and value roles and aesthetics typically portrayed as feminine. Maternal feminism seeks to rectify such an ostensible breach, but does so at the expense of non-procreative women, single women, trans women, queer women, and many others.
Big Ocean’s influence on these dynamics extends beyond the UN. The organization supports local groups called Big Ocean “cottages,” which work to address various issues in their own communities pertaining to women and families. There are active cottages around the United States, but also as far away as Nigeria.
Ali Lund, a member of Big Ocean’s Global Strategy Committee, is a cottage leader in her home state of Arizona. Her profile on the Big Ocean website says that in that capacity, Lund has worked on “educating others about the impact of transgender bathrooms in the schools, community, and for the youth of today.”
In a 2016 blog post for Mormon Women Stand, Lund details how she coordinated meetings with both Arizona senators, a member of Congress, the school board, the city council, and the mayor after her niece (also a Big Ocean member and part of Big Ocean’s youth delegation at the 2018 CSW) complained that a transgender classmate was using the women’s bathroom in her high school. Later that same year, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed suit against the federal government over President Barack Obama’s Title IX guidance requiring public schools to allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Local anti-trans organizing efforts likely played a role in galvanizing his actions.
This is where the truth behind the friendly faces is made more evident.
In October 2017, the inaugural Ethics of Reciprocity convening took place at the UN. The event aimed to create a space for dialogue between LGBTQ people of faith and religious conservatives. Of the dozens of conservative groups and individuals invited to participate, Big Ocean was one of the only organizations to send a delegation. Allen, along with a few other Big Ocean representatives, flew in from Utah for the event, and listened attentively as LGBTQ faith leaders from around the world shared their stories. Their presence was significant, but Big Ocean’s commitment to a gender essentialist point of view remains. And it has harmful effects—not only for trans and gender nonconforming people, but for anyone who advocates for an expansive, liberatory, and intersectional form of feminism.
The right is increasingly co-opting and redefining progressive language in order to advance a contrarian agenda. If feminism is successfully hijacked, justice and equality might be next.