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Where Have All the (Republican) Women Gone?


A review by Jo Freeman published in Vox Pop, Vol. 15, Issue 2,
Fall 1996, pp. 4-5.

The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Lines by Tanya Melich, New York: Bantam Books, 1996, 356 pages.

There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
They came back from the ride.
With the lady inside.
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Tanya Melich's story of betrayal by the party of her birth, an institution which was her political family, is also the story of how partisan realignment happens as experienced by one woman. It is a worm's eye view of a major change in the political climate, something which political scientists only recognize after it happens and only as a statistical artifact of millions of individual voting decision. Melich lived realignment; she fought it, and now she's written about it.
Melich does not see the gradual elimination of feminists from the Republican Party and the take-over by right-wing zealots as the accidental result of impersonal forces, but one consequence of deliberate decisions made by identifiable people following a plan. She traces the silencing of moderate Republicans in general and feminist Republicans in particular through the five Republican conventions from 1972 to 1992. There is some discussion of policy decisions and political activities between conventions, but most of the book is about the platform and rules fights and the context in which they took place.
Melich situates the rise of the New Right in Kevin Phillip's 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, which argued that the Party could regain dominance by joining "the old guard fiscal conservative message" with "white southern conservatives" and "blue-collar Democrats and independents who were social conservatives." Since feminism was not a public movement at that time, it was "the racist nature of its premise" that "Nixon's new conservatives embraced." (pp. 13-14, citing Phillips, 1969.)
However, she does see incipient antifeminism in Nixon's veto of the first comprehensive child care bill since World War II for its family weakening implications, and the fact that many members of the moderate Ripon Society thought "child care would 'destroy' the family" (p. 28). A subtheme of her book is that the moderate Republican men, as they were being slowly eliminated by the New Right, did not ally themselves with feminist Republican women because they didn't care very much about issues which touched on the family and thus would not fight those on the other side who did.
In pursuit of Phillips's New Majoritarian strategy, the New Right made a Faustian bargain with social conservatives in which they ceded hegemony over domestic policy in order to write the script for foreign and economic policy. The New Right was not interested in traditional Republican fiscal conservatism, but in supply side economics. They systematically sought electoral defeat of Republican moderates and removal of the "old guard" of the party, even if it meant electing Democrats. They brought the fundamentalists and disaffected Democrats into the Republican Party for this purpose.
New Rightists quickly discovered that "misogynist messages" could garner money and votes. Indeed sex was a much better issue than race or taxes to rouse voters out of their disenchantment with politics. Legalized abortion and homosexuality were highly charged emotional issues; the backlash against them made good fishing grounds. On these themes the right-wing direct mail houses and think tanks flourished.
The political possibilities of abortion became apparent even before Roe was decided in 1973 when the Catholic Church mobilized opposition to the movement to reform abortion laws in several states, a movement which was often led by Democratic legislators. "New conservatives" saw this as a golden opportunity to go trawling for another traditional Democratic constituency "by tightly linking the Republican party to the Church's position on abortion." (p. 15)
The influence of the new conservatives was enhanced at the Presidential level by adjusting the delegate formulas to favor Southern and Western states. Begun in 1964 when Goldwater controlled the convention, this process magnified conservative influence on the Presidential nomination. In 1972 Nixon sided with the conservatives. Since he controlled that convention, the delegate allocation formula made a conservative take over a serious possibility in 1976.
By then the center of the party had shifted. At the 1976 convention the old guard conservatives were now the moderates; the moderates were denounced as liberals on the fringe of the party; and the Reagan conservatives almost took over. When Ford lost to Carter, they completed the process. Feminist Republicans were allied with Ford in 1976, and when he was defeated they lost their base. RNC Co-chair Mary Crisp, an ERA activist who had campaigned for Goldwater in 1964, was virtually read out of the party by 1980.
Throughout the Reagan era Republican feminists laid low. They expected to reenter the corridors of power, or at least be listened to, if only their old friend George Bush succeeded Reagan. By the time Bush was elected in 1988, he had made his own bargain with the New Right and the social conservatives. Nothing changed.
During this time some moderate Republicans and many Republican feminists were wrestling with their lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party. In 1992 many couldn't stand it any more. They voted for Perot or, as Melich did, campaigned for Clinton. "The Republican party now belonged to the theocrats and the usual unprincipled power-seekers... We women had been fighting for the soul of the party for years. Now, in its defeat, we had exorcised the genie. A new era was beginning." (p. 278)
While Melich details the slow demise of the liberal/moderate wing of the Republican Party as seen through the "war against women", she isn't too clear about why it happened. Indeed her amazement that her party could desert its' traditional concerns for individual freedom and choice resembles that of the middle-aged wife who discovers one day that the husband she has served and serviced so loyally for years has dumped her for a younger and more vibrant model.
Like that of the first wife, her shock is in part due to years of self-deception. Her Republicans were always ladies and always loyal. They adhered to the cultural norms of the Republican party and didn't make a public stink when the men courted the religious conservatives. They allowed themselves to believe that if only they could elect a good man (e.g. George Bush) he would take care of them. They suppressed their anger at repeated betrayals and loyally put their shoulder to the wheel in campaign after campaign. Most importantly, they did not organize the grass roots of the Republican Party that they firmly believed agreed with them. If it was out there, these roots too finally left the party in disgust. Instead, these women appealed to the leadership to do the right thing and still served it faithfully when they didn't. Now they are mad as hell and ...... becoming independents and reluctant Democrats.


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