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Whatever Happened to Republican Feminists?
by Jo Freeman (1996)



For most of this country's history the Republican Party provided a much warmer reception to women, and in particular those women actively working to promote women's rights, than did the Democratic Party. Traditionally, the Republican Party was the more feminist of the major political parties.
Between 1970 and 1973 the parties switched sides; since then they have been rapidly going in the opposite directions in their attitudes towards women's rights and their programs to improve women's situation.
A brief look at history illuminates the profundity of this switch. Most of the women who first demanded suffrage in 1848 were involved in the antislavery movement and vigorously supported the party which freed the slaves.
Suffragists were particularly active on behalf of President Grant's re-election in 1872, William McKinley's campaign against William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and Theodore Roosevelt's campaign against Taft and Wilson in 1912.
The Republican Party saw the importance of women to winning elections even in states where women could not vote. In 1888 the Republican National Committee asked J. Ellen Foster, an attorney and temperance worker from Iowa, to organize the National Woman's Republican Association. While the Populists, the Prohibitionists and other small parties also organized women to work for their candidates, the Democrats did little. It was 1912 before there was a Women's National Democratic League, and it was composed mostly of the wives of Members of Congress.
In the 1890s women took up the job of municipal reform. In New York the West End Women's Republican Association worked to defeat Tammany Hall, while the Democratic newspaper asked "Where are the Democratic Women?" In 1894 and 1896 the Illinois Republican Women's State Central Committee sent Ida Wells-Barnett, prominent African-American journalist, on a lecture tour around the state on behalf of Republican candidates. In California the Republican Party, but not the Democrats, supported women candidates for local school boards and for suffrage.
In 1916 militant suffragists formed the National Woman's Party to campaign against all Democrats in the twelve states where women could vote for President to punish them for failure to support woman suffrage. While neither Party supported a federal suffrage amendment in its platform, Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes endorsed one on August 1, 1916. President Wilson didn't do so until 1918. The women who had supported Roosevelt in 1912 formed the Women's Committee of the Hughes Alliance and raised over $132,000 from 1,100 contributors for their own campaign. They organized and financed a special train to travel throughout the suffrage states holding rallies where women orators mobilized supporters.
Before the days of exit polls it is hard to tell exactly how women voted, but the few analyses that have been done indicate that there was a gender gap in favor of the Republican Party in most places at least until the 1930s. Indeed in the elections of 1952 and 1956 women were six percent more likely to vote for Republican Eisenhower than men were.
Women were particularly active on behalf of Herbert Hoover in 1928. The NWP endorsed him. Moderate suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt campaigned for him. Hoover got as much as 65 percent of the women's vote.
In the 1920s thousands of Republican Women's Clubs were organized throughout the country. The National Federation of Republican Women was founded in 1938 and today is one of the largest women's organizations. While the Democrats made a major effort to organize women during FDR's first two terms, this faded after 1940.
In 1940 the RNC adopted rules requiring equal representation of women on all RNC Committees. Equal representation on the convention platform committee became the rule in 1944, and on all convention committees in 1960.
Through 1968 women had more space in the Republican Party platform and usually had proportionately more delegates at its national convention than did the Democrats.
The GOP endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment four years earlier than the Democrats -- in 1940 -- and took it out four years later -- in 1964. The first three Presidents to support the Equal Rights Amendment were Republicans -- Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford.
During the 1970-72 campaign for Congressional passage of the ERA two of the most active supporters were the President of the National Federation of Republican Women and the female co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
By 1980 all this had changed.
At their convention that year the Republican Party removed the ERA from its platform a second time -- only eight years after both parties resumed support. It actively opposed legalized abortion and generally shunned those few Republican women still willing to call themselves feminists. Co-chair Mary Crisp, an ERA activist who had campaigned for Goldwater in 1964, was virtually read out of the party.
That November a "gender gap" in Presidential voting appeared, with women voting more Democratic than men. Since then Republican Members of Congress have voted increasingly against bills supported by feminist groups, and women have voted increasingly for Democrats over Republicans. Even when the 1984 Reagan campaign specifically targeted women, the gender gap remained. Indeed, it spread from the Presidential to many state and local races.
By Spring 1996, surveys showed that sixteen percent more men identified with the Republican Party than the Democrats, while eight per cent more women said they were Democrats than Republicans. Even among African Americans women were five to ten percent more likely to be Democrats than men were. In the 1996 Presidential race, the gender gap was eleven percent overall and 17 percent among those under 30. It spread to many other races.
What happened?
Although the feminist movement wanted to be bipartisan and organized women within both major parties, these efforts were not equally successful. In the Democratic Party women formed alliances with those who wanted to make their party more inclusive. In the Republican Party feminists were swimming against the tide.
That tide was the New Right, which had been trying to take over the Republican Party since Goldwater's campaign in 1964. In the early 1970s it had no particular interest in women; some New Rightists were pro ERA and pro Choice.
But the New Right saw victory in an alliance with social conservatives who traditionally voted Democratic, and in particular with Southerners who did not like racial integration and the greater intrusion of government that it led to. It wanted to leverage the backlash against social change into a Republican vote. The New Right first recruited fundamentalist ministers, especially in the South, who had stayed out of politics for decades because they thought it was dirty. The ministers were persuaded that the country's culture was being corrupted by the militant secularists, who had captured the Democratic Party. They convinced many of their flocks that it was the duty of all good Christians to involve themselves in politics in order to take back their culture and their institutions.
Legalized abortion expanded the backlash. When the Catholic Church mobilized opposition to abortion, New Right leaders saw a golden opportunity to go fishing among Catholics. Sex was added to race as a highly charged emotional issue which could uncouple traditional Democratic voters from the party of their birth. Indeed sex was a much better issue than race to rouse voters out of their disenchantment with politics. Racism was vaguely immoral; it had to be disguised as big bad government to be palatable. Sex was more suspect. Republicans labeled feminism as immoral sexuality -- i.e. abortion, homosexuality, mothering without marriage -- and touted themselves as the party of "family values."
By playing on the fears of change raised by feminism and the vastly changing role of women in our society, the New Right has created a new and potent partisan cleavage in the electorate, one which, like race, is gradually realigning major voting blocs. It has also created a fracture -- albeit a small one -- within the Republican Party. This fracture centers around abortion, but in fact involves broader concerns of sex, sexuality and the role of women. Republicans who called themselves feminists twenty years ago now organize as "pro-choice Republicans". Unfortunately, they are better at publicizing their concerns than at organizing the grass roots, so it is unlikely that they will be more than an irritant to the Republican party for many, many years.
In the last 25 years, the two major parties have undergone a realignment, on at least on one cluster of issues. They are now polarized around feminism and the reaction to it, with different programs and different visions of how to deal with sex and the role of women. The Republicans are now the party of traditional family values, while Democrats are following the feminist agenda of making the personal, political. Republican feminists are left with an onerous choice: they can stay in the party and suppress their feminist concerns, or they can leave.


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