Among feminists, Donald Trump’s election has prompted unprecedented soul-searching about What Went Wrong. The revelation that a majority of white women helped put Trump over the top cut especially deep.
The initial mystery – how could women vote for that man? – gave way to betrayal: How could they do this to other women? Then, after stages of grief and a few million pink pussy hats came the questions: How to harness the euphoric rage of the record-breaking women’s marches? How to make tangible progress, not merely prevent further losses?
To answer these riddles requires understanding how we got here, and a new book “Divided We Stand,” by a University of South Carolina professor, offers a detailed if sometimes dense primer.
Marjorie J. Spruill, a professor of women’s, Southern and modern American history, convincingly traces today’s schisms to events surrounding the National Women’s Conference, a four-day gathering in Houston in November 1977.
At the time, Ms. magazine called the event – a federally funded initiative to identify a national women’s rights agenda – “Four Days That Changed the World.” So why is it that today, as Gloria Steinem recently observed, the conference “may take the prize as the most important event nobody knows about”?
In Spruill’s telling, the Houston conference was world-changing, but not entirely for the reasons the organizers had hoped.
The event drew an estimated 20,000 activists, celebrities and other luminaries for a raucous political-convention-cum-consciousness-raising session. The delegates enacted 26 policy resolutions calling not just for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (then just three states shy of the 38 needed) but a wide range of measures including accessible child care, elimination of discriminatory insurance and credit practices, reform of divorce and rape laws, federal funding for abortion and – most controversially – civil rights for lesbians. Those “planks” later were bundled as a National Plan of Action and presented to then-President Jimmy Carter, amid much fanfare, in a report entitled “The Spirit of Houston.”
The conference had an unintended, equally revolutionary consequence, though: the unleashing of a women-led “family values” coalition that cast feminism not just as erroneous policy but as moral transgression.
Led by Phyllis Schlafly, a small but savvy coalition of foot soldiers mobilized against the conference’s aims. These activists found common cause in their deep faith and opposition to feminism’s perceived diminishment of “real” womanhood. “Divided We Stand” argues that the potency of these advocates and their successors reshaped not just the nation’s gender politics, but the politics of the Democratic and Republican Parties as well.
The Houston conference originated with a 1975 executive order issued by PresidentGerald Ford, charging a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year (thereafter known as the I.W.Y. Commission) that would, as Ford put it, “infuse the Declaration of Independence with new meaning and promise for women here and around the world.” Later that year, Congress tasked the commission with holding conferences in all 50 states to elect the delegates.
The state conferences that convened in the summer of 1977 proved to be anything but unified, and documenting that turmoil takes up much of Spruill’s attention.
Members of the Schlafly coalition – which called itself the I.W.Y. Citizens Review Committee, or C.R.C. – doggedly attended each meeting, disrupting the proceedings and attempting to win inclusion among the representatives who would travel to Houston.
In the end, few C.R.C. representatives were elected among the more than 2,000 racially diverse delegates who headed to the Houston Convention Center. So Schlafly and her followers took another tack: They organized a daylong Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally across town at the Astro Arena.
The chapters detailing these competing events are the best in “Divided We Stand.”
The feminists’ conference was steeped in symbolism, starting with the lighting of a “torch of freedom” in Seneca Falls, N.Y. — site of the 1848 women’s conference marking the beginning of first-wave feminism — that over the next six weeks was carried to Houston by a relay of runners including icons like Billie Jean King. Speakers included three first ladies – Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson – as well as Coretta Scott King, the Texas representative Barbara Jordan, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and fiery political newcomers like Ann Richards and Maxine Waters.
In contrast, the family values rally was as much a religious revival as a political event. A sign placed next to the podium said it all: “Women’s Libbers, E.R.A. LESBIANS, REPENT. Read the BIBLE while YOUR [sic] ABLE.” Many of the attendees – who were nearly all white – were men. Among them was the archconservative California representative Robert Dornan, who exhorted the audience to let their members of Congress know, as one attendee put it, that “the great silent majority is on the move to take the nation under God’s guidance.”
After Houston, that contingent was more successful in making political inroads than its feminist counterparts. The difference, as documented by Spruill, was in its single-minded pursuit of those power brokers Dornan had commended to it.
Most notably, it won over the Republican Party leadership.
At the time of the commission’s formation, Republicans were moderate when it came to feminism; the 1976 party platform, for instance, included support for the E.R.A. But by the 1980 presidential election, that had changed; the “family values” coalition co-opted the party platform, won conversions on abortion from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and propelled them – along with numerous other state and federal candidates –to victory.
In contrast, the Plan of Action landed with a thud on President Carter’s desk. A born-again Christian uneasy with alienating religious conservatives, Carter had inherited the conference initiative and never threw his full weight behind it – and indeed, had rebuffed organizers’ entreaties to come to Houston.
Despite efforts by some White House staff members, the plan never became a legislative blueprint. With a wary White House that became outright hostile after Reagan’s election, a split Congress and feminists’ attention diverted to the E.R.A. ratification effort – which failed when the time for approval expired in 1982 – any hope of implementing the plan stalled in the 1980s.
The Houston conference may have succeeded in awakening countless women to feminism, but most of its policy goals remain on the movement’s to-do lists.
These divergent narratives from 40 years ago offer many lessons to those hoping to maintain the momentum of the women’s marches earlier this year.
Two of the most salient: Forge unity out of diversity and hold elected officials accountable.
About the book
About Marjorie J. Spruill’s “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics” (Bloomsbury, $33), from her page on the USC site (http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/hist/marjorie-j-spruill):
“It is about the transformation of American political culture and the origins of the highly partisan, deeply polarized politics of today. Spruill focuses on the 1970s, particularly the federally-sponsored International Women’s Year conferences of 1977 when feminists drafted a National Plan of Action and conservative women, organizing in opposition, created a “Pro-Family Movement” to counter feminist influence in politics. An epilogue continues the story from 1980 through the 2016 presidential election.
“Spruill argues that the great debates of the 1970s over women’s rights and social roles were transformative. While in the early 1970s both major political parties supported the goals of the women’s rights movement, after 1980 – when the GOP chose to cast itself as the defender of family values – American politics would never be the same. Spruill argues that the issues that divided American women into warring camps in the 1970s and divided the major parties have continued to shape the political discourse that dominates national politics, devaluing moderation and compromise and producing political gridlock.”