Book Reviews

When the Anti-Feminists Roared Back

In the early 1970s, even Nixon was a feminist. By decade’s end, things had changed.

By Alice Echols

Tagged FeminismHistory

Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics by Marjorie J. Spruill • Bloomsbury • 2017 • 448 Pages • $33

In the early 1970s American feminism was on a roll. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), left for dead for decades, sailed through both houses of Congress in spring 1972. Within three months, 20 states, more than half of the 38 needed for ratification, had come onboard. Meanwhile, Congress strengthened the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, passed the Women’s Education Equity Act, and enacted Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in all federally funded education programs and activities. By the conclusion of its term, on January 3, 1973, the 92nd Congress had passed more women’s rights bills than all previous legislative sessions combined. Then, less than three weeks later, the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, declared abortion legal until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. With one sexist barrier after another falling away, some feminists, giddy with all they had accomplished, concluded that they were now in the final stages of revolution.

In fact, as early as 1970, none other than Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, the woman who revived the ERA that year, declared that feminists were now in the “mopping up” stage of their operation. Feminism seemed ubiquitous, and not just in Washington, D.C. On college campuses, feminists began to organize classes in Women’s Studies, and growing numbers of women pursued postgraduate degrees. Ms., the glossy feminist magazine, hit newsstands in 1972, the same year that the Government Printing Office approved the use of the feminist honorific in government documents. American pop culture shifted as well. Helen Reddy’s feel-good feminist anthem “I Am Woman” topped the charts and won a Grammy. Within a few years the disco tsunami hit, and some of its biggest tracks featured women singing explicitly, and without reliance on double entendres, about their desires or “love rights.” Even Hollywood movies offered glimpses of the unconventional and unexpected. Take Jane Fonda’s character sneaking a glance at her watch as she fakes an orgasm in the movie Klute. Feminists would do more than bemoan the one-sidedness of pleasure in heterosexual sex. Widely circulated feminist broadsides about the Big O and the superiority of the clitoral kind shook up bedrooms across America. “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” indeed!

While radical women’s liberationists turn up in historian Marjorie J. Spruill’s engrossing Divided We Stand, her focus here is on liberal feminism and the battles it waged in the White House, Congress, and state legislatures. What many readers will be surprised to learn, however, is that feminists’ success in flexing their collective political muscle owed a lot to the Republican Party. In fact, liberal feminists, who aimed to integrate women fully into public life, enjoyed substantial support from Republicans, some of whom hoped to make the GOP the party of equal rights feminism.

The Republican-feminist convergence stemmed in part from the Equal Rights Amendment. Introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA effectively split the post-suffrage women’s movement into opposing camps. The ERA exposed a longstanding tension within feminism, as some argued that women’s situation might be better advanced through strategies that favored equality while others opted for strategies that emphasized difference that is, women’s inherent differences from men.

This was not a theoretical disagreement. Feminists understood that protective legislation, which singled out women workers for special treatment such as limiting the number of hours they were required to work and restricting nighttime employment, would be among the first casualties of the ERA. Protective legislation was a mixed bag, which is why some feminists such as Florence Kelley supported it and others, including the ERA’s best known advocate, Alice Paul, opposed it. While it offered women some protection from workplace abuses, it also restricted their occupational choices. Tending bar, operating an elevator, delivering mail—all were off limits to women. Organized labor and its allies in the Democratic Party argued that protective labor laws helped women workers, and they hoped laws such as limits on hours and heavy lifting might be extended, in time, to all workers. It was this very possibility that helped assure that probusiness lobbies and their surrogates in the GOP would oppose protective legislation. It took until the late 1960s, when court decisions validated workplace protections regardless of gender, for protective legislation to seem antique—paternalistic and discriminatory—and for Democrats to change course and join Republicans in supporting the ERA.

Making sense of Republicans’ support for feminism more broadly requires understanding intra-party politics, and Spruill explains this well. Still smarting from Barry Goldwater’s embarrassing defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the party establishment worked to put distance between itself and its right wing. Supporting women’s rights became one way of doing this. Political opportunism also played a role. Aware of feminism’s growing popularity, some Republicans, such as party leader Rogers Morton, wanted to see the GOP become the party championing women’s rights.

The upshot of this was that the presidency of Richard Nixon, a man today remembered for his appeals to the “Silent Majority,” his deployment of the racist “Southern strategy,” and the dirty tricks of the Watergate scandal, had a decent record on women’s issues. Nixon was an unapologetic sexist, but he signed Title IX into law. His Administration also released Revised Order 4, which mandated that companies with federal contracts submit straightforward plans for recruiting women. It became known as “The Magna Carta of female employment.” And his White House appointed more women to high government positions than any other Administration.

For sure, Nixon did not always sign onto feminist initiatives. He vetoed a bill that provided federal funding for childcare on the grounds that it would lead to the “Sovietization of American children,” as his speechwriter Patrick Buchanan put it. Republican feminist Tanya Melich would later accuse Nixon of “flirting with us” while he was “in bed with the new conservatives.” Still, in August 1972, Newsweek went so far as to venture that “the person in Washington who has done the most for the women’s movement may be Richard Nixon.”

After Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford became President, and went on to prove himself an even more reliable ally of liberal feminists than his predecessor. Ford appointed record numbers of women to his Administration, double the number that Nixon had, and he was robustly pro-choice. It was Ford who signed the executive order establishing the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year (IWY). Afterwards, and with the press still in attendance, Ford asked his unabashedly feminist wife Betty for her thoughts on the occasion. She cheekily congratulated him on having “come a long, long way.”

Supporting women’s rights was one way the Republican party establishment put distance between itself and its right wing, post-Goldwater.

But then, with America apparently on the brink of feminist revolution, a slumbering giant began to stir in the country’s heartland. Goldwater Republicans, hardright groups such as the John Birch Society, and organized religion—particularly evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Mormons—began to mobilize. In some states, even the Ku Klux Klan joined in. Soon, conservatives had managed to recast the ERA as an amendment that mandated same-sex toilets and women on the battlefield.

Blindsided by the speed and extremism of the backlash, feminists gradually came to understand that they were far from the “mopping-up” era some had imagined. Instead, they faced a formidable enemy—a new type of women’s movement, one organized around religion, family values, and traditional gender roles, that reframed feminism not as the bearer of opportunity but rather as an agent of female vulnerability and loss, a movement designed to knock women off their enviable pedestals. If feminism succeeded, anti-feminist activists argued, women would find themselves drafted into the military and forced into the workforce (one lacking protections, no less). And then there was Roe, which, they argued, the ERA would make unassailable. By the time Reagan was elected President in 1980, the party’s liberal wing had been marginalized, and anti-feminist “family values” ideology was becoming baked deep into the GOP’s ideology and agenda.

Spruill’s fine-grained account of anti-feminist activists’ efforts to recast the women’s movement as anti-American, and feminists’ perplexed and indignant response, makes for compelling reading. In Utah, the Mormon Church provided buses for 10,000 women to attend that state’s IWY meeting. The result? Participants passed resolutions against the ERA, in support of the dissolution of IWY, and considered endorsing the repeal of women’s suffrage. With feminism under siege, more radical women’s liberation activists, women who had held themselves aloof from reformist efforts, became increasingly involved in mainstream feminist battles.

Spruill’s account usefully focuses on the ensuing collision of cultures and suggests that the newcomers’ participation was a mixed blessing for the women’s movement. Radical women’s liberationists succeeded in forcing the mainstream women’s movement toward greater inclusivity of both racial and sexual minorities. However, their more confrontational style inflamed conservatives and provided antifeminists with powerful ammunition, which they used to great effect. Take California’s IWY meeting where lesbians reportedly set up display tables filled with “female masturbating wands, clitoral vibrators . . . and suction devices for extraction of menstrual discharge or for performing a self abortion.”

One woman, a member of the John Birch Society who documented a number of statewide IWY meetings, produced a highlights tape that captured what she saw as the worst of what another antifeminist activist called “the horribles.” Widely distributed, especially to churches, the cassette tape quickly became a hit. This, and other such efforts, meant that feminism, which had enjoyed widespread support as commonsensical and wholesome, increasingly came to be understood as pernicious, rooted not only in collectivism and internationalism, but in perversion as well.

But the person most responsible for this shift was, in the end, a highly educated Republican housewife from the Midwest, Phyllis Schlafly. A veteran anti- Communist, Schlafly was the author of A Choice, Not an Echo, a book that played a notable role in Goldwater’s nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1964. Schlafly had long nursed a grudge about the way the centrist party establishment had sidelined its right wing. She despised Nelson Rockefeller and other “Eastern establishment ‘kingmakers,’” and the aftermath of Goldwater’s defeat would only intensify these feelings. Blocked in 1967 by establishment types from heading up the influential National Federation of Republican Women, Schlafly set about creating an “army” of women with a strong “pro-American viewpoint.” Her self-penned Phyllis Schlafly Report, a four-page monthly newsletter, became essential reading for conservatives.

Schlafly was a reluctant warrior against the ERA, which she initially considered somewhere between “innocuous and mildly helpful.” Her political passion was, instead, national defense, and, at this point, the “social issues” that were beginning to animate the country’s emerging New Right did not move her. But in February 1972, at the urging of other conservative women, Schlafly came out against the ERA. Given Schlafly’s outsized influence in torpedoing the ERA, one wishes that Spruill lingered on this fateful pivot just a while longer. One wonders if Schlafly was entirely won over by ideological arguments, as Spruill’s narrative suggests, or whether political opportunism also figured in her decision.

Whatever the reason, once onboard, Schlafly organized American housewives into a formidable force against feminism.

With organizations such as STOP ERA, she built an alternate women’s movement, one that made hard-right conservatism resurgent, and established the foundations for Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Long before Bill O’Reilly, Schlafly was also a right-wing media star, appearing regularly on daytime TV talk programs, including the popular “Phil Donahue Show,” the “CBS Morning News” and, eventually, CNN. What made her such a galling figure for feminists was her core paradox—that she was ideologically committed to female subordination, yet was a consummate professional and a fierce politico—hardly a meek stay-at-home wife.

Spruill later focuses on the struggle to ratify the ERA, which became hopelessly bogged down after Schlafly’s army sprang into action, and the strife surrounding 1977’s landmark National Women’s Conference in Houston. The four-day conference, the culmination of IWY, had more than a patina of respectability—it featured three former first ladies—yet delegates passed a surprisingly radical platform for the time that included support for the ERA, gay and lesbian rights, and women’s right to abortion.

Spruill gives us a detailed account of the fireworks. She also provides an essential backstory to the culture wars, one that, in contrast to some recent work, insists upon the centrality of gender. Take, for example, Thomas Frank’s influential book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank contends that the Republican Party deploys social issues to win elections, but once its candidates are elected enacts a bait-and-switch, ditching these issues to advance the party’s core agenda, one that further empowers big business and slashes government services. Spruill argues instead that the interests of social conservatives and
fiscal conservatives converged in this period. “The opposition of these social conservatives to federal programs to aid women and promote gender equality,” Spruill writes, “dovetailed with the desire of fiscal conservatives to curb government spending and regulation.”

Spruill recognizes the importance of gender to the culture wars and the remaking of the Republican Party, but Divided We Stand’s determinedly birdseye view of these battles results in a book more descriptive than analytical. A lot of ink has been spilled on this fight and one wishes that she would have engaged, for example, with the work of Deirdre English, who notably argued that feminism’s female antagonists were actually moved by the fear that feminism would free men first. One also wishes she had framed her discussion of women’s rights, in greater depths, through the lens of citizenship. One cannot make sense of feminism and the opposition against it unless one understands that, as late as the early 1960s, the universal subject of American democracy was assumed to be a white, heterosexual man. As the historian Robert O. Self has highlighted, activists trying to extend rights to working women and to ethnic and sexual minorities would turn to the state, which in turn brought together evangelicals and fiscal conservatives in opposition to such efforts.

Whatever their other differences, conservatives were united in fighting anything that might weaken people’s attachment to, and need for, the heterosexual nuclear family. From their point of view, anything that made people less dependent on this nuclear family (food stamps, welfare, and subsidized childcare, even abortion) was likely to foster their dependence on the federal government. Nothing brought together conservatives more effectively than the specter of an even more empowered administrative state. Indeed, there is a link to be made between the New Right’s attacks on the ERA as overly “collectivist” to Paul Ryan’s attack on the Obama Administration for supposedly selling the American people “a government-planned life,” full of entitlements rather than true freedom.

Conservatives were united in fighting anything that might weaken people’s attachment to, and need for, the heterosexual nuclear family.

Indeed, no one made the anti-equality argument better than Schlafly, but American society was also changing in ways that made feminism a harder sell. Spruill discusses the explosiveness of gay and lesbian rights and reproductive rights, but she doesn’t discuss at any length the broader backdrop. And yet we know that globalization, job-killing technology, affirmative action, and looming defeat in Vietnam were changing the political terrain and ramping up discontent, particularly among the white men and women of America’s working classes. Forty years before the rise of Donald Trump, they were beginning to feel like strangers in their own land, and feminism’s challenge to male dominance sharpened their alienation.

Finally, Spruill’s effort to produce an unimpeachably objective account means that she positions herself very much above the fray, with the result that time and again, she pulls her punches, whether it’s with Bella Abzug or Phyllis Schlafly. One question that hangs over Divided We Stand but is never addressed is whether feminists should have abandoned the ERA. After all, the courts were busy striking down laws that discriminated against women. Did feminists end up staking everything on what was becoming a largely symbolic amendment? And how much of what Spruill calls the “diversifying and unifying” of feminists in Houston was actually little more than horse-trading between racial and sexual minorities? As for the antifeminists, Spruill’s kid-glove approach to Schlafly is especially mystifying since the STOP ERA campaign is truly a case study in the power of disinformation.

While Spruill is right to explain why anti-ERA arguments about the military draft or public toilets took hold, she could have usefully taken apart those misleading and mendacious arguments, as Christine Stansell does in her 2010 book, The Feminist Promise. Spruill notes how infuriating feminists found it that the media treated Schlafly’s troops as if, in numbers and political temperament, they represented the mainstream. But her judiciousness ends up replicating the media’s “both-sides” narrative, and in ways that may seem depressingly familiar to many who followed the recent presidential campaign.

The most obvious takeaway from Divided We Stand is the case its author makes for the fundamental, if unintended, role played by feminism, reproductive rights, and the gay and lesbian movement in launching the New Right. Spruill approvingly cites longtime Republican feminist Tanya Melich, who argued that Schlafly not only “built a Religious Right constituency of fundamentalist women in the South,” but also “introduced the ministers to the New Right policies of the Republican Party.”

All of that is true, but one also comes away from this book with a deeper understanding of the shared ideological ground between the Old and New Right. Spruill emphasizes the impact of reproductive rights and the emerging gay movement in mobilizing the right, but her evidence suggests that conservatives also perceived a threat in what they saw as a broadening feminist coalition. For example, one South Carolinian conservative accused his state’s IWY organizers of courting minority women and poor women by promising them a “‘sugar daddy’ from the cradle to the grave.” That sugar daddy, of course, was the federal government. Schlafly would have agreed. Her anti-feminism was rooted in her opposition to “federal solutions to personal problems,” be they programs to alleviate poverty, provide health care, or educate young children. As liberal feminists began to more fully address circumstances of class and race, they provoked conservatives’ ire and their longstanding dread of collectivism, big government, and the dependence they believed it breeds. Which brings us back to today, where these same fissures have risen, once again, to the surface. Perhaps it is thus time to finally consider the numerous ways in which gender and race are inextricably connected to free enterprise, the trope upon which so much of modern American conservatism is built?

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Alice Echols is professor of History at the University of Southern California and the author of the forthcoming, Shortfall: Family Secrets, Financial Collapse and a Hidden History of American Banking.

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