Medical Tuesday Blog
The Battle Over Women’s Rights And Family Values
Women Vs. Feminists
A populist movement—the antifeminist crusade of the mid-1970s—stymied a supposedly inevitable progressive victory. Sound familiar?
Kay S. Hymowitz reviews “Divided We Stand” by Marjorie J. Spruill.
WSJ | March 9, 2017
The scene may feel familiar: an out-of-touch Republican establishment, bitter debates over gender roles, an angry populist rebellion. In “Divided We Stand,” Marjorie Spruill describes a polarized America that will be recognizable to any consumer of today’s news. Her story is set, though, in the 1970s and depicts, in the words of the book’s subtitle, “the battle over women’s rights and family values.”
In Ms. Spruill’s telling, the battle was unexpected. By the mid-1970s women’s rights were not only ascendant but appeared to be uncontroversial even among prominent Republicans. The Supreme Court, intellectuals, educators and moderate religious leaders were all on board. Landmark bills like the 1963 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had eroded legal sex discrimination, and a growing number of women were serving in high-level government positions. The Equal Rights Amendment, a priority for activists, had been passed by Congress in 1972, and by 1975 polls showed that 58% of Americans supported its ratification. The tide of history had seemingly turned.
Ms. Spruill organizes her narrative around the National Women’s Conference, scheduled to take place in Houston in November 1977. Blessed and funded by federal and state governments, the conference was designed to be an untroubled celebration of feminist progress and a planning session for the cause of women’s rights. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
The planning for the conference awakened suppressed rage in women resistant to the emerging feminist order. Most of the refuseniks were white, married, religious women from the South, Midwest and frontier West who were bristling from the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. They viewed abortion rights as of a piece with feminist disdain for traditional wives and mothers. They weren’t wrong on that score, as their soon-to-be leader Phyllis Schlafly understood. The prodigiously energetic and shrewd lawyer had herself been ridiculed as just “a housewife from Illinois.” Divided We Stand
The state planning sessions for the Houston event became civil-war battlegrounds. Bella Abzug, the flamboyant liberal congresswoman from New York City appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the National Women’s Conference, was the four-star general for the feminist army. Schlafly, the commandant of the antifeminists, bitterly noted that, by funding planning meetings and appointing liberal leadership, the federal government had effectively decided that feminists spoke for all women. It was a provocation that she couldn’t abide.
The antifeminists’ top order of business was to beat back the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly was instinctively opposed to the measure as the worst sort of big-government intrusion into private life, but she also insisted that the ERA would deprive women of much-needed protections. Feminists and moderates mocked her warnings as fantastical—that women would be drafted, homosexuals would marry and bathrooms would become unisex. But her concerns struck a chord with Middle American women and men, and she proved more prescient than her critics.
Fissures also opened among the feminists themselves. Abzug had been the first to introduce gay-rights legislation in Congress, a fact that worried moderate feminists. Like other historians of this period, Ms. Spruill describes the “lesbian question” as a threat to the coalition. The left criticized moderates for not promoting what today’s feminists call intersectionality—that is, the intersection of black, Hispanic, American Indian or lesbian female identities. Moderates, meanwhile, wanted to keep the focus on sex discrimination and worried about alienating potential supporters.
Ms. Spruill’s honorable attention to the state meetings can drag her narrative at times, but she still manages to draw out a story crucial to understanding American politics over the past 40 years. Through church newsletters and community networking, the antifeminist movement mobilized millions of housewives who had until then kept their distance from politics. As a result, and despite pleading phone calls from the president and first lady to state representatives, feminists could not muster the three last states whose ratification was needed to pass the ERA. As for the Houston conference, it took place as planned but with an antifeminist protest conference nearby.
Mr. Carter remained oblivious to the “Armageddon state by state,” as Ms. Spruill neatly describes the successful antifeminist protests leading up to Houston, and oblivious to the wider cultural shift they were signaling. When he finally began to distance himself from progressives, it was too late. The Religious Right turned its back on the born-again Sunday school teacher and helped elect a divorced, onetime Hollywood star. In the decades after, the Religious Right’s support for George H.W. Bush and his son—and, more astoundingly, for Donald Trump—helped stymie what often looked like inevitable progressive victories.
Not that feminists could be said to have lost the war. Women’s place at the highest levels of public life was soon taken for granted. Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman Supreme Court justice. Female cabinet and judgeship appointments became a must in every administration. Bill Clinton introduced the country to Hillary Rodham, who thrived politically until she became yet another feminist to suffer defeat, in part, at the hands Phyllis Schlafly’s descendants.
The 2016 election showed that women remain the most divided of identity groups. Some 53% of white female voters were willing to cast their ballots for a man whom feminists despise as a misogynist. And the question raised by the battle of 1977—who speaks for women? —still bedevils American politics.
Ms. Hymowitz’s most recent book is “The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back.”
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