We are floundering in a secular maelstrom, according to Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester. Religion has been replaced by self-indulgence; family values by individualism. His polemic, published in the first issue of Standpoint magazine, launched in June, was a call to arms for a return to Christian values to replace "the moral and spiritual vacuum in which we now find ourselves".

Sally Feldman's page from New Humanist, July/August 2008Nazir-Ali's impassioned plea was welcomed by Minette Marrin, a member of Standpoint's editorial board, who in the Sunday Times compared his brave stance with that of another champion of traditional values, the television campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

"Just as she did, he is now standing as a lonely champion of western, particularly Christian, civilisation. ...Though his style is infinitely more sophisticated, his substance is much like hers." And like Mary Whitehouse, continued Marrin, "Nazir-Ali suggested that the Marxist-inspired cultural wars of the 1960s sought to bring about political revolution through sexual and social revolution."

There are other similarities which Marrin failed to mention. Both the Bishop and the TV cleaning lady represent versions of an uncompromising conservatism: anti-liberation, fiercely prudish, disapproving of homosexuality and, perhaps most tellingly, deeply suspicious of feminism. Nazir-Ali refers admiringly to the writings of the historian Callum Brown, who blamed the cultural revolution of the 1960s for the overturning of Christianity's role in society and who, writes Nazir-Ali, "notes particularly the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society."

This kind of rhetoric exemplifies the panic which Susan Faludi identifies in Backlash, first published in 1981. She describes a "bulletin of despair" where the achievements of women are constantly cancelled out by evidence of their misery, their exhaustion, their loneliness. "If the status of women has never been higher, why is their emotional state so low? If women got what they asked for, what could possibly be the matter now?" And the prevailing wisdom, she argues, is that "it must be all that equality that's causing all that pain. Women are unhappy precisely because they are free. Women are enslaved by their own liberation. They have grabbed at the gold ring of independence, only to miss the one ring that really matters. They have pursued their own professional dreams - and lost out on the greatest female adventure. The women's movement, as we are told time and again, has proved women's own worst enemy."

Faludi is particularly disappointed at the once fearless women who have colluded in the backlash. "We have won the right to be terminally exhausted," reflected Erica Jong, while Nora Ephron declared that "the main achievement of the woman's movement is the Dutch treat." Even founder feminist Betty Friedan, notes Faludi, warned that women now suffer from a new identity crisis and new "problems that have no name".

And 20 years on, radical recidivism is still going strong. When accepting her Nobel Prize earlier this year, Doris Lessing took the opportunity to lambast feminism for its disregard for men. And in one of her increasingly eccentric twirly U-turns, Fay Weldon has recently suggested that women would be far happier if they devoted themselves to pleasing men, even faking orgasm if that's what it takes to keep them happy. Meanwhile Rosie Boycott has been warning of the dangers of flexible working and Amanda Platell has been sounding off about the inherent bitchiness of women bosses. A moral crusade is in full swing, and women, treacherous women, are marching shoulder to shoulder alongside the patriarchy.

How could it have happened? Back then, when we were busy reclaiming the night, demanding equal pay, expanding our minds, examining our clitorises, raising our consciousnesses, glorying in sexual freedom, grabbing the world by its petrified collar and creating revolution, how could we possibly have guessed during our love-ins and our rallies and our festivals and our mind-expanding antics that our own sisters would turn against us?

We should have learned from history and from the similar anxieties that greeted an earlier women's movement - the one that demanded political equality. This month marks the ninetieth anniversary of the extension of the vote to all women, in July 1928 - the culmination of a long and courageous campaign by the suffragettes who marched and starved, were shackled, imprisoned, force-fed, ridiculed, hated and who even died for the right to an equal share in humanity. Throughout their struggle they had faced concerted opposition not just from the male establishment but from women themselves.

Although routinely ridiculed by the suffragettes, the women who began to oppose them in the latter part of the 19th century garnered considerable support - through public debate, the formation of leagues and societies and through the hundreds of journals and pamphlets and books where these formidably organised women promoted their cause. A major anti-suffrage petition mounted shortly before the First World War won nearly half a million signatures from women.

In Women Against the Vote, the historian Julia Bush argues that the overriding position of the anti-suffragists was a fear that the granting of the vote would endanger the fabric of society, since it would threaten the traditional role of women. "For these women," she argues, "feminism was the social evil lurking behind the more superficial political errors of the female suffrage cause. Diversion of women's social role away from the natural functions of motherhood, for example through their future absorption into the male world of parliamentary government, could have catastrophic results both for individuals and for the progress of British civilisation."

The principles that drove the anti-suffragists were the sanctity of motherhood and belief in the separate sphere of women. Both derive from a Judaeo-Christian world view where a woman's value was above rubies and yet below that of men; where even in the Garden of Eden the original couple had divided duties. Christianity was the foundation of the Victorian construction of family, and especially the fetishising of a woman's domestic duties. "Dependence was at the core of the evangelical Christian view of womanhood," argue Lenonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in Family Fortunes, their study of the 19th-century middle classes. "And the new female subject, constructed in real religious terms, was the godly wife and mother."

As the century progressed, women's lives became in many ways more restricted. The reform acts deliberately excluded women not only from the vote but from owning property. Where wives used to participate routinely in family farms and businesses, there was a gradual retreat into domestic concerns where home-making became a vocation in itself. And while the first duty of a woman was to be a good wife and mother, this definition extended to philanthropic work - where the natural instincts for caring and nurturing could be extended to the wider community.

The economic value of this hidden work of middle-class women gave added impetus to those who feared their voluntary labour would disappear if they were granted the vote. "Nothing can be further from our minds than to seek to depreciate the position or the importance of women," declared the Appeal Against Female Suffrage, the campaign's major manifesto. "It is because we are keenly alive to the enormous value of their special contribution to the community, that we oppose what seems to us to endanger that contribution."

At the same time, though, armies of working-class women continued to take on grindingly arduous and poorly paid work as they always had, though increasingly in mills, factories and sweat shops as well as in domestic labour or prostitution. Paid employment was also necessary for more genteel single women and widows, who would have to find positions usually as teachers or governesses.

Concern for all working women, whether employed in paid or voluntary activities, or suffering from the devastating results of unemployment, united both suffragists and their opponents within the National Union of Women Workers. And active middle-class women in similarly non-political associations like the Mothers' Union and the Girls Friendly Society joined forces to promote common values and social reform.

The difference between them was a disagreement not so much about the nature of women as about its implications. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett, for example, agreed with her adversaries that women were more gentle, more nurturing and caring than men. But this should not be a reason to exclude them from public life. "I advocate the extension of the franchise to women," she wrote in 1894, "because I wish to see the womanly and domestic side of things weigh more and count for more in all public concerns."

The anti-suffragists countered that it was women's femininity and motherliness that made them unsuited for politics. "While desiring the fullest possible development of the powers, energies, and education of women," asserted the Appeal, "we believe that their work for the State, and their responsibilities towards it, must always differ essentially from those of men."

Through documenting the lives of a number of highly committed and educated anti-suffragists, Julia Bush shows how even those most passionate about improving the lot of women did not always include the vote in their aspirations. Mary Ward, for example, one of the main inspirations behind the organised campaign against it, was nonetheless a powerful advocate for women's access to higher education. Even Elizabeth Wordsworth, the distinguished first Principal of Oxford's Lady Margaret College, had no enthusiasm for the suffrage cause. She shared with fellow "maternal" anti-suffragists a belief in the supreme importance of protecting femininity and promoting the intellectual development of future mothers - a belief fuelled by her devout Christianity.

But not all anti-suffragists were religious. One of the most prominent women of the century, revered for her towering intellect and literary genius, pilloried for her rejection of Christianity, was also opposed to women's suffrage. George Eliot differed radically from the more extreme and vociferous anti-suffragists, but she also shared some, though not all, of the prevailing rationale.

While agreeing that women occupy a separate sphere and are not suited for political power, she saw this as circumstantial rather than innate. Women, she felt, were not yet ready, not yet sufficiently educated for this responsibility. She was similarly dubious about the extension of the franchise to working-class men, ratified in the 1832 Reform Act. For despite her atheism, her defying of convention, her own courage and willingness to embrace unpopular views, George Eliot was a fairly conservative political thinker, believing in gradual reform rather than revolution.

And like so many other unusual women, she might have rather enjoyed her position as a man's woman, someone who could wrestle in the most demanding intellectual circles and come away triumphant. It was an attitude shared by some of the century's most doughty women adventurers. Mary Kingsley, for example, who fearlessly travelled the empire and ended her life nursing the wounded during the South African War, was known to be opposed to women's suffrage, as were Gertrude Bell and Marianne North.

And even though George Eliot did give support to a number of women's causes, contributing to the setting up of Girton College in Cambridge and to Octavia Hill's prison reform work, it was perhaps her desire for pre-eminence that made her so adamantly unhelpful to those who wrote asking for advice on writing.

The kind of novels she wanted to discourage were long, densely plotted family sagas designed to cater for a newly literate audience of women readers of all classes, and facilitated by the advent of public libraries. Best-selling authors like Marie Corelli, Charlotte Yonge and Eliza Lynn Linton, all active journalists and campaigners against women's suffrage, injected into their novels a powerful message about morality and a woman's destiny.

In Charlotte Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family Rachel Curtis decides to reject marriage and instead find a mission in life. Only after a chequered saga of misfortune does she comes to realise that her true vocation is domestic devotion and submission to a greater being. A similar realisation awaits the heroine of Eliza Lynn Linton's The Rebel of the Family, Perdita, who comes under the influence of dangerous women's rights activists and lesbians before she is rescued by a handsome young suitor.

Superficially such plots may echo George Eliot's own masterpiece Middlemarch. Dorothea, too, is a clever young woman yearning to fulfil herself through good works and to make a contribution to society. She too finds her destiny through falling in love. But here the comparison ends. Like the other two greatest novels of the century, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Middlemarch is a portrayal not of the weakness of women but of the constraints that limit their lives.

For George Eliot was a strong believer in extending opportunities for women, in social and political reform and above all in the power of reason. And it was this rationalism, fuelled by her early passion for Herbert Spencer, that led her to form sympathy with the positivist movement of which Spencer was a leading proponent.

Initially attracted to the idea that the supremacy of science and reason over religion would bring about a more benevolent, rational civilisation, Eliot became disillusioned by positivism's more cultist tendencies. For in his later work its founder, the French philosopher Auguste Comte, appeared not so much to reject religion altogether as to substitute one form for another, promoting his "religion of humanity" almost as a sect with its own saints, temples and semi-spiritual values.

While positivism was unappealing to devoutly religious women, it was a natural magnet for many of the more progressive anti-suffragists - women like the educational reformer Ethel Harrison, whose husband Frederick was a leading positivist philosopher. They were attracted by the utopian vision not only of a more just and gentle society, but of one where, free of the shackles of superstition, men and women could express their true natures. For, strongly influenced by the somewhat antediluvian gender stereotypes favoured by Rousseau, positivists regarded women's nature as fundamentally different from men's: they are more emotional, more nurturing, more suited to wifedom and to their separate domestic sphere.

And the substitute of "natural" for "god-given" is a telling one, since in both iconographies, women remain second-class: inferior, slavish and submissive. Indeed the very term "natural" is a trap, frequently employed to defend prejudice and tradition. Some of the most fiercely contested contemporary debates that threaten the autonomy of women are rooted in this seditious notion.

The Parliamentary motion on human fertilisation and embryology is just the most recent example of how what is "natural' is used as an argument against women's rights. The debate centred on the morality of creating hybrid embryos for medical research, but included clauses on who should have the right to fertility treatment with an amendment proposing a reduced time limit on abortions.

In all three instances, opposers of the bill invoked a groundless but emotional appeal to the idea of what was natural. To mix the cells of humans and animals was constantly upheld as monstrous, a trampling on what it was to be human. Single women or lesbians should be denied IVF, went the argument, because their status as mothers was unnatural. As for abortion - here's Bishop Nazir-Ali again, quick to denounce what is both unnatural and ungodly.

"At what point does human dignity attach to the embryo or foetus? Now, I take a developmental view of how personhood emerges in the early stages of life, but even if you take such a view, you still have to exercise the precautionary principle because you do not know exactly when there is a person. Is it at conception, at implantation or at the beginning of brain activity or the ability to feel pain? This is why the embryo is treated with special respect in legislation so that we, even unknowingly, do not violate human dignity. The notion that human beings possess dignity which can never be taken away cannot be justified in terms only of public opinion and even less of utilitarianism. It is, in fact, grounded in the biblical idea that humans have been made in the image of God and this gives them a dignity which cannot be violated or removed from them."

And this confusion about the true nature of women continues to fuel contemporary debates about gender politics. From those who stressed the essentialism of womanhood in the 19th century through the radical feminists of the 1970s who eschewed any interaction with the male world, to contemporary feminist theorists like Luce Irigay and Julia Kristeva, separatism still divides those who reject the male sphere from those of us who want a share in the power.

Prejudice against powerful women also persists. The coverage of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, for example, has been notable for its emphasis on her appearance, with endless scathing comments on her unwomanly ambition and her coldly tenacious style. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of successful "men's women" who, as feminists like to quip, have made it through the glass ceiling but taken the ladder up with them. The classic example is this country's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who during her eleven years in government managed not to promote a single woman to her cabinet.

The legacy of a grossly exaggerated reverence for motherhood is also still with us, loudly manifest in our tabloid press where anyone who dares to depart from the norm of the perfect mother is regularly castigated and held up as an emblem of moral turpitude. The warning, the constant warning, is that this is what happens when women are given too much leeway and depart from their proper place.

So the principles and fears that drove the anti-suffragists still reverberate, and they are too fundamental, too atavistic to be dismissed as sheer reactionary panic. The conflict between what is natural and what is moral, between religion and reason, between women's equality and the traditions that suppress it - it's this that continues to perplex so many principled, brave, committed, active, educated, talented women whenever they have faced the prospect of liberation.

Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain by Julia Bush is published by Oxford University Press