Book Write-Up: Republican Women, Divided We Stand

Catherine E. Rymph. Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2006.

As the title indicates, this book chronicles the history of Republican women. Rymph argues that there were two strains of thought among Republican women. One strain wanted women to be equal with men in the Republican Party structure. In the other strain, women essentially did their own thing, mobilizing, as women, in political crusades. For example, Republican women clubs mobilized to support Senator Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against Communism. The book goes up to Phyllis Schlafly and, though the book does not say this explicitly, she embodied both approaches. She participated in a league of Republican women and led an organization of women against the ERA, yet she also formed alliances with conservative men.

The book talks about the conservative views of Republican women in the 1930’s. One prominent Republican woman held that people can solve their problems and conflicts on their own, without government intervention. An African-American Republican woman feared that the New Deal would sap African-Americans’ work ethic by putting them on the dole. These are predictable conservative positions. Rymph discusses the views of feminist Republicans in the 1970’s, but she could have been clearer about how they incorporated their feminism into their larger Republican philosophy. She says that they supported individual rights, a conservative position, but more elaboration could have helped.

The footnotes have tidpits, as when one fact-checks Phyllis Schlafly’s claims about the ERA. Schlafly relied a lot on Yale scholar Thomas Emerson’s article on the ERA, but Emerson straight-out denied that the ERA would eliminate sexed restrooms.

Marjorie J. Spruill. Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics. Bloomsbury, 2017.

This book is about the 1977 International Women’s Year Conference. In Spruill’s portrayal, the feminists were the tolerant, level-headed ones, whereas the conservatives were belligerent and were seeking to take the conference over. In my opinion, the feminists in the book come across as condescending, seeking to enlighten the closed-minded conservatives. The book prefers the feminists, but Spruill tries to be even-handed, or at least to give the impression of even-handedness. She quotes conservatives’ accusations that the conference was unfair and rigged against them, and she refers to conservatives by the titles that they prefer: pro-life, pro-family, etc.

Spruill documents the ties of the anti-ERA movement with white supremacy, which scholar Donald Critchlow denies. Schlafly did not desire KKK support for the anti-ERA cause, and her supporters were upset to learn of it. But KKK members and segregationists still gravitated towards the anti-ERA movement. Schlafly herself convinced George Wallace to switch from supporting to opposing the ERA, since she recognized Wallace’s influence in the south. There are times when Spruill posits racism where it does not necessarily exist, as when she observes that a white conservative confronted a black feminist. Why note their race, when the confrontation was not overtly about race? Still, Spruill’s observation that white supremacists supported a traditional patriarchal system is not surprising.

As Spruill narrates, Schlafly united a wide variety of people against the ERA. She was a Catholic, but Lottie Beth Hobbs brought Protestants on board. Schlafly respected religious differences, as when she held separate religious services in recognition of the reality that some religious groups forbade their adherents to worship with people of other religious groups. The power and influence of Mormonism in opposing the ERA is another topic in this book.

Bella Abzug is portrayed as a heroic person. She took on McCarthyism and segregationism in the south, inviting threats to her life and well-being. Her human side is highlighted, as when Spruill talks about Abzug’s doting husband and how he called her his beautiful Bella. Abzug’s struggle over embracing gay rights, an unpopular position at the time, and her clash with Jimmy Carter are also narrated. Spruill depicts Abzug as rather tolerant on the abortion issue, as Abzug insisted that the pro-lifers be permitted to speak. Why Abzug was tolerant in this case is puzzling.

The book could have been clearer about what exactly separated the feminists from the conservatives. Did the feminists believe that women should be able to go out and work, whereas the conservatives preferred that women stay home? Some conservatives would deny that, but feminists would say that the system that conservatives advocate discourages women from working outside the home. Conservatives oppose reproductive freedom and state-subsidized child care facilities, so what is a woman with a child to do? Spruill does not appear to take seriously, or at face value, Schlafly’s actual arguments against the ERA: that it would remove women’s protections in the workplace, that current law already safeguards equal rights, etc.

The book is engrossing, such that I missed my bus-stop one time when I was reading it; fortunately, I was coming home from work rather than going to work on that particular ride.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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