Don't miss Kay Hymowitz review of Divided We Stand: The Battle over Human Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics, Marjorie Spruill new book about two women's movements, feminism and the conservative opposition, of the 1970s.
The narrative is organized around the National Women’s Conference, scheduled to take place in Houston in fall of 1977 and funded by federal and state governments. It was planned as a celebration of feminism. But then:
The state planning sessions for the Houston event became civil-war battlegrounds. Bella Abzug, the flamboyant liberal congresswoman from New York City appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the National Women’s Conference, was the four-star general for the feminist army. [Phyllis] Schlafly, the commandant of the antifeminists, bitterly noted that, by funding planning meetings and appointing liberal leadership, the federal government had effectively decided that feminists spoke for all women. It was a provocation that she couldn’t abide.
The antifeminists’ top order of business was to beat back the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly was instinctively opposed to the measure as the worst sort of big-government intrusion into private life, but she also insisted that the ERA would deprive women of much-needed protections. Feminists and moderates mocked her warnings as fantastical—that women would be drafted, homosexuals would marry and bathrooms would become unisex. But her concerns struck a chord with Middle American women and men, and she proved more prescient than her critics.
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Ms. Spruill’s honorable attention to the state meetings can drag her narrative at times, but she still manages to draw out a story crucial to understanding American politics over the past 40 years. Through church newsletters and community networking, the antifeminist movement mobilized millions of housewives who had until then kept their distance from politics. As a result, and despite pleading phone calls from the president and first lady to state representatives, feminists could not muster the three last states whose ratification was needed to pass the ERA. As for the Houston conference, it took place as planned but with an antifeminist protest conference nearby.
Hymowitz sees the split Spruill describes as still important to American politics:
The 2016 election showed that women remain the most divided of identity groups. Some 53% of white female voters were willing to cast their ballots for a man whom feminists despise as a misogynist. And the question raised by the battle of 1977—who speaks for women?—still bedevils American politics.