Linda Green­house

Di­vided We Stand: The Bat­tle Over Women’s Rights and Fam­ily Val­ues That Po­lar­ized Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics by Mar­jorie J. Spruill

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Linda Green­house

Di­vided We Stand:

The Bat­tle Over Women’s Rights and Fam­ily Val­ues

That Po­lar­ized Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics by Mar­jorie J. Spruill.

Blooms­bury, 436 pp., $33.00

In the sum­mer of 1968, Ge­orge Wal­lace, in be­tween terms as gover­nor of Alabama, con­cluded that en­dors­ing the Equal Rights Amend­ment for women would help his third-party pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. He de­clared his support in a tele­gram to Alice Paul, the head of the Na­tional Women’s Party, who had cowrit­ten the first draft of the amend­ment in 1923 and had been cam­paign­ing for it for forty-five years. The pro-seg­re­ga­tion­ist Wal­lace was hardly alone among con­ser­va­tive politi­cians in his po­si­tion. Strom Thur­mond, a Repub­li­can se­na­tor from South Carolina, like­wise sup­ported the amend­ment, say­ing in 1972 that it “rep­re­sents the just de­sire of many women in our plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety to be al­lowed a full and free par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Amer­i­can way of life.”

In fact, the Repub­li­can plat­form had sup­ported the Equal Rights Amend­ment as far back as 1940; op­po­si­tion had come mainly from pro-la­bor Democrats, who feared that equal treat­ment for men and women would mean an end to leg­is­la­tion that pro­tected women from dan­ger­ous jobs. La­bor op­po­si­tion waned as the in­creas­ingly ac­tive fem­i­nist move­ment—frus­trated that the Supreme Court had never in­ter­preted the Four­teenth Amend­ment’s equal pro­tec­tion guar­an­tee to ap­ply to dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of sex—made pass­ing the Equal Rights Amend­ment a top pri­or­ity. In 1971 the House ap­proved the ERA by a vote of 354–24. The Se­nate fol­lowed the next year by a vote of 84–8. The pro­posed amend­ment’s lan­guage was straight­for­ward: “Equal­ity of rights un­der the law shall not be de­nied or abridged by the United States or by any State on ac­count of sex.” The nec­es­sary rat­i­fi­ca­tion by three quar­ters of the states—the magic num­ber of thirty-eight—looked em­i­nently achiev­able.

Shortly af­ter Congress’s en­dorse­ment, how­ever, Wal­lace re­pu­di­ated his ear­lier support, and in his plat­form pro­claimed:

Women of the Amer­i­can Party say “NO” to this in­sid­i­ous so­cial­is­tic plan to de­stroy the home, make women slaves of the govern­ment, and their chil­dren wards of the state.

In 1980, the year Ron­ald Rea­gan was elected pres­i­dent, the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion dropped the party’s long-stand­ing support from its plat­form. Mo­men­tum for rat­i­fi­ca­tion slowed dra­mat­i­cally. Op­po­nents raised fears that the amend­ment would sub­ject women to the mil­i­tary draft and lead in­ex­orably to uni­sex bath­rooms. When the June 30, 1982, dead­line that Congress had set for rat­i­fi­ca­tion ar­rived, only thirty-five of the nec­es­sary thirty-eight state leg­is­la­tures had voted yes, and the ERA died.

What hap­pened? How did an ef­fort born in bi­par­ti­san­ship end in po­lar­iz­ing de­feat? Clearly, the ERA prompted a pro­found de­bate about the place of women not only in the work­force but in the home, the fam­ily, and so­ci­ety it­self, in the course of which the amend­ment be­came en­tan­gled with the rise of the re­li­gious right that helped to bring about Rea­gan’s elec­toral sweep. Was the ERA the cause of po­lar­iza­tion or its vic­tim? Or did it turn out to be some­thing else: a cat­a­lyst for pos­i­tive change in leg­isla­tive and ju­di­cial at­ti­tudes? It was while the ERA was pend­ing that the Supreme Court un­der Chief Jus­tice War­ren E. Burger took the first steps to­ward ex­pand­ing the un­der­stand­ing of equal pro­tec­tion to in­clude equal­ity of the sexes, ten­ta­tively at first but even­tu­ally bring­ing us to where we are today: liv­ing un­der what some stu­dents of so­cial move­ments, like Reva B. Siegel of Yale Law School, call the de facto ERA.1

Jane J. Mans­bridge’s Why We Lost the ERA (1986), writ­ten in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the events it de­scribes

1Reva B. Siegel, “Con­sti­tu­tional Cul­ture, So­cial Move­ment Con­flict and Con­sti­tu­tional Change: The Case of the de facto ERA,” Cal­i­for­nia Law Re­view, Vol. 94, No. 5 (2006). by a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who was part of the pro-ERA ef­fort, ar­gues that “much of the support for the Amend­ment was su­per­fi­cial, be­cause it was based on a support for ab­stract rights, not for real changes.” Mans­bridge’s ac­count holds up sur­pris­ingly well. She con­trasts a painfully fac­tion­al­ized pro-ERA cam­paign, riven by de­bates over what pri­or­ity to at­tach to abor­tion and gay rights, with the rigidly or­ga­nized and spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful STOP ERA move­ment (STOP was an acro­nym for “stop tak­ing our priv­i­leges”) led by Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, who per­suaded her fol­low­ers—largely con­ser­va­tive and re­li­gious women— that their very way of life was at stake. Of course, that way of life was dis­ap­pear­ing rapidly—as a re­sult not of fem­i­nism but of house­hold ne­ces­sity dur­ing the eco­nom­i­cally stag­nant 1970s. As the tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­ture, with the male bread­win­ner at its head, be­came an un­af­ford­able lux­ury, women en­tered the paid work­force in great num­bers. Yet for many women as well as men, a tra­di­tional fam­ily re­mained the ideal, even as it re­ceded from pos­si­bil­ity.

This dis­junc­tion is at the heart of the his­to­rian Robert O. Self’s All in the Fam­ily: The Realignment of Amer­i­can Democ­racy Since the 1960s (2012). Self de­picts a rich his­tory of strug­gle over the war in Viet­nam, gay rights, and re­li­gious val­ues, as well as a con­fla­gra­tion over gen­der roles prompted by the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year cel­e­bra­tions—which ac­tu­ally lasted for three years, from 1975 through 1977. Self un­der­stands the pe­riod pri­mar­ily from an eco­nomic per­spec­tive. Those he la­bels “bread­win­ner con­ser­va­tives” were acutely aware of the chang­ing na­ture of the fam­ily, he writes, “yet chose to un­der­stand it ide­o­log­i­cally, as a re­sult of fem­i­nism, rather than so­ci­o­log­i­cally, as a re­sult of eco­nomic change. That anal­y­sis led not to pro­pos­als to as­sist women in man­ag­ing the dou­ble day but to the launch­ing of a jeremiad against fem­i­nism.” Self ob­serves fur­ther that “it was not fem­i­nists’ anal­y­sis of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety that fell short,” but rather their fail­ure “to man­age the po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the ‘cri­sis of the fam­ily.’”

Mar­jorie J. Spruill’s Di­vided We Stand is the most re­cent ef­fort to probe the fem­i­nist/an­tifem­i­nist strug­gle of the 1970s for what it might tell us about today’s po­lar­ized Amer­ica. It’s an am­bi­tious book, built around a close study of an event that Self treats in only a few pages and Mans­bridge in a sin­gle pass­ing ref­er­ence: the con­gres­sion­ally man­dated, fed­er­ally funded Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence that took place in Hous­ton in Novem­ber 1977. The con­fer­ence was or­ga­nized by the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on the Ob­ser­vance of In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year, set up by the Ford ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1975 to co­or­di­nate Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pa­tion in the United Na­tions–spon­sored Decade for Women. From May to July 1977, some 130,000 peo­ple—all but a few hun­dred of them women—took part in state-level meet­ings to se­lect del­e­gates and de­bate the con­fer­ence’s agenda. The idea was to come up with a “plan of ac­tion” for the na­tional del­e­gates to adopt and present to the White House and Congress.

The path to this goal was in­tensely con­tested, with a num­ber of the state con­ven­tions be­com­ing ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle­grounds over is­sues like fed­er­ally funded child care, gay rights, and abor­tion. Two thou­sand del­e­gates and nearly 20,000 ob­servers even­tu­ally at­tended the of­fi­cial con­fer­ence in Hous­ton, while a sim­i­lar num­ber gath­ered across town in a con­ser­va­tive coun­ter­con­ven­tion or­ga­nized by Sch­lafly. Both sides emerged highly mo­bi­lized and ready for con­tin­ued bat­tle.

The events of 1977 are of­ten por­trayed merely as one episode in a decade of fem­i­nist con­flicts, gains, and set­backs. Spruill, a his­to­rian of south­ern and women’s his­tory at the Univer­sity of South Carolina, makes the rather stronger claim that the com­pet­ing con­fer­ences “ush­ered in a new era in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics—the be­gin­ning rather than the end of a pro­tracted strug­gle over women’s rights and fam­ily val­ues.” Whereas in the early 1970s Democrats and Repub­li­cans had, in Spruill’s view, “both . . . sup­ported fem­i­nist goals,” the events of 1977 cre­ated two po­lar­ized and in­creas­ingly par­ti­san camps. The plan of ac­tion that emerged from the of­fi­cial con­ven­tion in the end

in­cluded support for the ERA, abor­tion rights, and gay rights. It called for equal ac­cess to credit, which banks rou­tinely de­nied to mar­ried women on the premise that the hus­band was in con­trol of the fam­ily fi­nances. One plank called for re­form “based on the prin­ci­ple that mar­riage is a part­ner­ship in which the con­tri­bu­tion of each spouse is of equal im­por­tance and value.” The counter-con­fer­ence was dom­i­nated by Chris­tian and anti-abor­tion del­e­gates united un­der a “pro-fam­ily” ban­ner. Spruill notes that the of­fi­cial del­e­gates were so “caught up in their own con­fer­ence ex­pe­ri­ence” that they had “lit­tle sense” of how equally em­pow­er­ing the Hous­ton week­end had proved to be to the other side.

It’s hard to make the case that 1977 was solely, or even pri­mar­ily, re­spon­si­ble for set­ting in mo­tion the strug­gles that left us with a “pro-fam­ily” Repub­li­can Party and a Demo­cratic Party com­mit­ted, at least on pa­per, to a women’s rights agenda. As Ge­orge Wal­lace’s flip-flop five years ear­lier demon­strates, the ERA was al­ready toxic, if some­what be­lat­edly, to so­cial con­ser­va­tives, and the bat­tle over fam­ily val­ues was al­ready in full cry. Spruill her­self refers to Richard Nixon’s 1971 veto of a bill that would have es­tab­lished a net­work of fed­er­ally funded child care cen­ters. Nixon’s veto mes­sage, writ­ten by Pa­trick Buchanan, de­nounced the bill as a “long leap into the dark” that promised to com­mit “the vast moral au­thor­ity of the Na­tional Govern­ment to the side of com­mu­nal modes of child-rear­ing against the fam­ily-cen­tered ap­proach.” None­the­less, Spruill’s project of his­tor­i­cal recla­ma­tion is an im­por­tant one. While the Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence and the com­pet­ing Pro-Life, ProFam­ily Rally did not quite amount to “Four Days That Changed the World” (as it was de­scribed in a Ms. mag­a­zine head­line the fol­low­ing March), they were sig­nal events that drew thou­sands of women into po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment and of­fered clearly de­fined—if op­pos­ing—ar­gu­ments in which these new ac­tivists could dis­cover sym­pa­thies. Glo­ria Steinem may well have been right in a re­cent in­ter­view to call the Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence “the most im­por­tant event no­body knows about.”

The Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence, al­most coun­ter­in­tu­itively from today’s per­spec­tive, had the full bless­ing of the po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual es­tab­lish­ment. Mar­garet Mead, the fa­mous an­thro­pol­o­gist, then seventy-five years old, told the del­e­gates that “this con­fer­ence may well be the turn­ing point, not only in the his­tory of the women’s move­ment, but in the his­tory of the world it­self.” First Lady Ros­alynn Carter was in at­ten­dance, along with one Demo­cratic and one Repub­li­can pre­de­ces­sor, Lady Bird John­son and Betty Ford; the trio was for­mally wel­comed by the mayor of Hous­ton. The event’s over-the-top the­atri­cal­ity was epit­o­mized by a sixweek-long torch re­lay that be­gan in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women’s rights con­ven­tion had been held in 1848, and con­cluded in Hous­ton. The fi­nal lap was cov­ered on net­work tele­vi­sion. Maya An­gelou wrote a dec­la­ra­tion for the oc­ca­sion, which was printed on a scroll that the torch­bear­ers car­ried. As Spruill de­scribes the scene:

There was a tremen­dous re­sponse as the three young women run­ners—white, black, and Latina— de­liv­ered the torch and Maya An­gelou’s poem to the three First Ladies as an all-fe­male bu­gle corps dressed in golden Ama­zon hel­mets saluted them.

Who could pos­si­bly for­get that? But we have.

Spruill of­fers in­trigu­ing glimpses of a young Ann Richards, a self-re­gard­ing Betty Friedan, and a deeply am­biva­lent Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, who in­her­ited the project from Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford and watched it war­ily from the White House. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing the Na­tional Plan of Ac­tion in a for­mal cer­e­mony, Carter set up a forty-mem­ber Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee for Women but kept it at arm’s length. The new com­mit­tee’s mem­bers, many of whom had been lead­ers at the Hous­ton con­fer­ence, grew im­pa­tient when the pres­i­dent did not make the con­fer­ence’s ac­tion items a leg­isla­tive pri­or­ity. For his part, Carter was try­ing to nav­i­gate be­tween lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive forces within the Demo­cratic Party with­out alien­at­ing the so­cial con­ser­va­tives who had been among his ear­li­est sup­port­ers. When the women went pub­lic with their dis­sat­is­fac­tion, Carter re­acted an­grily by fir­ing the group’s leader, Bella Abzug, the leg­endary for­mer Demo­cratic con­gress­woman from New York who, as Carter’s ap­pointee, had been the pre­sid­ing of­fi­cer in Hous­ton. Notwith­stand­ing the many col­or­ful per­son­al­i­ties at the of­fi­cial con­fer­ence, the star of this ac­count is in­dis­putably Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, whom Spruill cred­its with awak­en­ing, mold­ing, and mo­bi­liz­ing Amer­ica’s church­go­ing house­wives into a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force. While the lead­er­ship of the fem­i­nist side was dif­fuse and not in­fre­quently in con­flict, on the anti-ERA side it was all Sch­lafly. Sch­lafly, who had lost two con­gres­sional races in Illi­nois, was a deeply po­lit­i­cal cold warrior whose hus­band, Fred, was pres­i­dent of the World Anti-Com­mu­nist League. She sup­ported Barry Gold­wa­ter’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 1964; her book A Choice Not an Echo, which called upon the Repub­li­can Party to de­feat the party’s lib­eral fac­tion, sold more than three mil­lion copies and is cred­ited with help­ing Gold­wa­ter de­feat Nel­son A. Rock­e­feller for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion.

Sch­lafly was not ini­tially en­gaged ei­ther by the ERA de­bate or by women’s is­sues in gen­eral. Com­mu­nism and na­tional de­fense were her pri­mary con­cerns. But oth­ers sought her out as one of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tive women. Once she got started, she never re­ally stopped. (She died in Septem­ber 2016 at ninety-two, six months af­ter en­dors­ing Don­ald Trump’s can­di­dacy dur­ing the Repub­li­can pri­maries.)

Sch­lafly cre­ated a pow­er­ful grass­roots move­ment, per­son­ally se­lect­ing the lead­ers of her many state chap­ters. Al­though a de­vout Catholic, she could speak across de­nom­i­na­tional lines to re­cruit con­ser­va­tive Protes­tants and also Mor­mons, whose con­tri­bu­tion to the anti-ERA ef­fort was more im­por­tant than is gen­er­ally rec­og­nized. Sch­lafly had, Spruill notes, an ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to unite in a coali­tion re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives from groups hos­tile to one an­other. She ac­com­plished this by em­pha­siz­ing their com­mon be­lief in the pri­macy of di­vinely cre­ated gen­der roles and fa­mil­ial struc­ture while re­spect­ing de­nom­i­na­tional dif­fer­ences.

This “pro-fam­ily” coali­tion proved es­sen­tial to the growth of the an­tiabor­tion move­ment in the late 1970s; Spruill sug­gests that with­out it, abor­tion as a po­lit­i­cal is­sue might well have re­mained a parochially Catholic con­cern.

As Reva Siegel and I doc­u­ment in our book Be­fore Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abor­tion De­bate Be­fore the Supreme Court’s Rul­ing,2 many re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions felt obliged to take a for­mal po­si­tion on abor­tion as mo­men­tum grew in the early 1970s for re­form of the nine­teenth-cen­tury laws that made it a crime in ev­ery state. Sur­pris­ingly, even con­ser­va­tive groups like the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Evan­gel­i­cals and the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion took po­si­tions in fa­vor of lim­ited re­form. Only the Catholic Church re­mained op­posed to any mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the old crim­i­nal laws, and it was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­tive in state-level pol­i­tics to de­fend its po­si­tion.

The ERA’s early sup­port­ers, most but not all of whom sup­ported abor­tion re­form, wor­ried that abor­tion might de­rail the amend­ment and went out of their way to in­sist it would not change the abor­tion sta­tus quo. Sch­lafly— a non­prac­tic­ing lawyer—would have none of it. Dur­ing the months be­fore the Supreme Court rec­og­nized a con­sti­tu­tional right to abor­tion in Roe v. Wade (1973), she warned her fol­low­ers that the ERA would not only de­stroy the tra­di­tional fam­ily but would bring about “abor­tion on de­mand” and, for good mea­sure, same-sex mar­riage as well. This mul­ti­pronged threat be­came a ral­ly­ing point for cul­tural con­ser­va­tives for whom, as Spruill puts it, “the sense of work­ing for a right­eous cause was em­pow­er­ing.” The anti-ERA ef­fort was in­fused with re­li­gious lan­guage and im­agery. Among anti-ERA ac­tivists, 98 per­cent iden­ti­fied as church mem­bers, com­pared with fewer than half of ac­tive ERA sup­port­ers.

Spruill ap­pears to have in­ter­viewed ev­ery par­tic­i­pant in the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year events who was still alive dur­ing the years she spent on the project. Her ex­haus­tive re­search, with more than a thou­sand foot­notes, dis­plays the vice of its virtue. She seems to have felt obliged to quote ev­ery­one she in­ter­viewed, even when it adds lit­tle to the doc­u­men­tary record or proves less than il­lu­mi­nat­ing, as in the case of her 2009 in­ter­view with Jimmy Carter, whose con­flicted in­volve­ment with the fem­i­nist lead­er­ship pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing side plot. (Al­though many fem­i­nists said that he did not do enough for the ERA, Carter be­lieved he “had done all that he could.”) Still, the nearly over­whelm­ing de­tail and the abun­dant pres­ence of dis­tinctly sub­or­di­nate play­ers make Di­vided We Stand an

2 Yale Law School, sec­ond edi­tion, 2012. The book can be down­loaded at doc­u­­fore-roe.

in­valu­able, if at times barely read­able, ref­er­ence book.

There is an al­ter­na­tive, or at least sup­ple­men­tal, read­ing of what hap­pened in Hous­ton forty years ago that Spruill, com­mit­ted to her the­sis that the com­pet­ing con­fer­ences led to today’s cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion, seems not to see. A con­ver­gence of sorts emerged from the ef­fort to bring women to Hous­ton to rally for their separate causes. Both sides spoke past each other, to be sure, but whether they knew it or not, they also, in their dif­fer­ent ways, were speak­ing the lan­guage of women’s rights: at a fun­da­men­tal level, each side rec­og­nized a wo­man’s right to leave home, travel to a dis­tant city, and stand up for what she be­lieved to be in the best in­ter­est of her sex. By def­i­ni­tion this was a claim, even if un­ac­knowl­edged, to equal ac­cess to power, to equal­ity in form if not in name.

Spruill quotes many pro-ERA ac­tivists who de­scribe the Na­tional Women’s Con­ven­tion as trans­for­ma­tive. Yet they were not the only ones trans­formed by Hous­ton or the events of the mid-1970s. Jane Mans­bridge, in her thirty-year-old ac­count of “why we lost the ERA,” sug­gests this:

When the ERA was in the news­pa­per, when a co-worker went to an ERA demon­stra­tion, or when ad­vo­cates de­bated the ERA in the school gym, women who nor­mally thought lit­tle about these is­sues seem to have be­gun to ask them­selves about the amount of house­work they were do­ing, about their pay, and about what kind of per­son they wanted to be.

The re­sult, Mans­bridge con­cluded, “was both creep­ing fem­i­nism and creep­ing an­tifem­i­nism,” a com­plex pic­ture of change and re­sis­tance, cen­tered on a pro­found de­bate over what kinds of so­cial ar­range­ments are in women’s best in­ter­ests.

This process has an ironic echo in today’s abor­tion de­bate. As pic­tures of fe­tuses held aloft at demon­stra­tions failed to gain suf­fi­cient trac­tion, anti-abor­tion strate­gists ap­pro­pri­ated the lan­guage of women’s lib­er­a­tion and be­gan to place the preg­nant wo­man her­self at the cen­ter of their moral claim for re­strict­ing ac­cess to abor­tion. In 2013, the Texas leg­is­la­ture cyn­i­cally in­voked women’s health as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for im­pos­ing oner­ous and med­i­cally un­nec­es­sary reg­u­la­tions on abor­tion clin­ics that would pre­dictably close most of them. In Whole Wo­man’s Health v. Heller­st­edt (2016), the Supreme Court over­turned the law, find­ing that by de­stroy­ing the state’s abor­tion in­fra­struc­ture, the reg­u­la­tions would ac­tu­ally hurt women rather than help them. While it was a cru­cially im­por­tant de­ci­sion, few would be so naive as to con­sider it an end to the de­bate over how to serve women’s wel­fare, whether in re­gard to abor­tion or any­thing else, within the Supreme Court or out­side it.

Spruill ends her book with Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion: “It was clear that the po­lar­iza­tion of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics had reached a new and omi­nous level and that the na­tion was more di­vided than ever.” Novem­ber 8, 2016, was one day that in­dis­putably “shook the world.” Whether its ori­gins can be found in the “four days that changed the world” in Hous­ton is open to de­bate. But the value of re­con­struct­ing those days and pon­der­ing their mean­ing for the light they might shed on ours is un­ques­tion­able.

First Ladies Lady Bird John­son, Ros­alynn Carter, and Betty Ford, In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year pre­sid­ing of­fi­cer Bella Abzug, and Torch of Free­dom re­lay run­ners at the open­ing cer­e­monies of the Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence, Hous­ton, Novem­ber 1977

Phyl­lis Sch­lafly

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