Spruill, Marjorie J. Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand chronicles how feminist issues relating to the ERA and reproductive rights were a key factor in leading to political polarization that we now see in a contemporary political context between the Democrat and Republican Parties. Spruill focuses on 1970s politics and evenly discusses both the feminist and conservative women’s movement. While Divided We Stand chronicles the evolution of how presidential administrations and political parties solidified their stance on feminist issues, Spruill also equally asserts that the 1977 National Conference and Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally should be central to the study of women’s history.
As a scholar of the late 19th & early 20th century, there were a few misconceptions I had on the relation of politics to feminist issues that Spruill disproved in her narrative. Most notable is the myth that the Republican Party always supported the stances of conservative women. However, the early 1970s saw both Democratic and Republican Parties supporting – monetarily and through public declaration – the modern women’s movement (pg.2). Spruill illuminates an often misplaced notion that the Republican Party has had a long history with the pro-life movement. Rather, in the formative stages of the feminist movement in the 1970s, the Republican Party supported the ERA and pro-choice platforms. Some examples she includes of Republican involvement in the women’s movement include:
- The presidency of Gerald Ford – Spruill highlights how traditional historical scholarship often does not portray Gerald Ford as an ardent supporter for feminism, but rather did so reluctantly as a means to “support his wife” (pg. 42). However, from the early stages of his presidency, Ford met with women members of Congress and representatives of major women organizations. Spruill described his presidency as a “peak period of feminist influence” whereas feminists had support from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government (pg. 47).
- The International Women’s Year (IWY) Commission – Republican president Gerald Ford signed an executive order that commissioned women (which included moderate Republican feminists) about the current status of women and what appropriate steps the government should take to resolve any gendered barriers. These women eventually presented President Ford with “To Form A More Perfect Union…Justice For American Women”, a 382 page report which included 115 recommendations for the future status of women (pg. 59). The federal government funded the commission, which greatly angered conservative feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly who saw the federal government’s support as exclusionary to other (conservative) women’s ideologies.
Another misconception that Spruill disproves is the notion that republicans took an anti-abortion stance on ideological and religious grounds. While religion was at the core of the anti-ERA and pro-life movement, the perpetuating force behind republicans siding with conservative family stances was political. Regarding abortion, early opposition to its legalization came primarily from the Democratic Party, whose religious constituency included Catholics. However, Spruill argues that Republicans saw the issue of abortion as an “opportunity to bring Catholics into the GOP fold” (pg. 64). This shows that the Republican platform attached itself to anti-abortion rhetoric in order to expand their voter base.
Furthermore, Spruill centralizes the 1977 National Women’s Conference as a defining moment that catalyzed both the women’s rights and conservative women’s movement. Argued as the “crest” of the second wave feminist movement, the Conference was a huge spectacle, with prominent women across various fields in attendance, including former first ladies, Billie Jean King (who four years earlier won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match), Maya Angelou, and Coretta Scott King. The goal of the conference called for unity of American women behind an agenda that reflected diverse interests. This agenda, the ‘National Plan for Action’, included various planks that called for the elimination of gendered barriers in education and employment as well as increased access to child care facilities and pregnancy disability benefits. To make the movement more broad and inclusionary, a minority caucus was formed, where the term “women of color” originated which we now hear in current socio-political discourse. The contemporary components we associate today with the feminist movement – the rights of minorities, lesbians, and reproduction – grew and were solidified at the Conference.
While the National Women’s Conference brought a degree of unity among feminists, built grassroots support, and led to an increased awareness of the status of women, its overarching goal to formulate a common agenda for the future of all women became more polarized. Rather, Houston in 1977 was a place of contention between the women’s rights and conservative women’s movement. Across town, Phyllis Schlafly helped initiate a pro-life, pro-family conference as a conservative backlash response to the National Women’s Conference. Only a few years earlier, the general consensus among the media and public did not give much merit to Shalfley’s small and ultra-conservative crusade. However, as other scholars have emphasized, Shalfley had a crude ability to unite people with diverse interests under one ‘umbrella’ agenda. While anti-ERA and pro-life groups previously did not carry the same identity, the pro-life, pro-family conference converged these two movements in closer contact with each other. Schaefly also managed to merge different religious denominations under a common emphasis of “divinely created gender roles and familial structure”. As Spruill states, “…leaders from these previously hostile religious groups seemed to fear encroaching secularism and the threat posed by feminism more than they feared one another” (pg. 92). In the study of social movements, this is a common theme of resource mobilization: the larger the coalition, the stronger (in theory) the movement is. While a larger coalition can be disadvantageous due to competing ideologies, history has shown that sometimes diverging groups cast their differences aside because a particular goal creates a stronger pull than their own personal ideologies. Another strategy Schlafly utilized that is a common tactic studied in social movement scholarship is her recognition of the role the media can play in highlighting a movement. Schlafly’s strategy of ‘all media is good media’, created an atmosphere whereas the more prominent of a presence she was, the more airtime it gave to the movement. She even went so far as to file lawsuits against media companies who did not give airtime to the anti-ERA side of the debate (pg. 95). As Spruill notes, Schlafly was the “face” of the pro-life, pro-family movement which evidently led to easy accessibility whenever the media needed a representative from the movement. While being the face of the movement tends to silence grassroot supporters, Schlafly’s easy accessibility to the media – however a contentious relationship that was – led to increased awareness of the pro-life, pro-family movement.
Divided We Stand offers new insights into the intersection of gender & politics and how this dualism influenced each other. While it was enlightening to examine the strong role feminist issues contributed to political polarization, it left me wondering what other factors led to this sharp political divide. However, this does not diminish the narrative Spruill exceptionally wrote. She makes a strong case for how, as Ms. Magazine noted, the National Women’s Conference was “four days that changed the world.” For those interested in the genesis of how political parties attached themselves to certain feminist issues and the historical significance of the National Women’s Conference & Pro-Life, Pro-Family Conference, Divided We Stand is a good place to begin.
Below is a news report of the National Women’s Conference from a local Houston TV station: