2017-05-19 / Society

Divided We Stand

By Jan Collins


Jan Collins Jan Collins It’s often said that timing is everything, and if this is accurate, University of South Carolina history professor Marjorie J. Spruill’s timing is nothing less than perfect.

Dr. Spruill, who specializes in American history, particularly women’s and gender history, has written a new book entitled Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics (Bloomsbury 2017).

After working on the book, on and off, for more than a dozen years, Divided We Stand had the good fortune of coming out just a few months after the highly divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election that highlighted the deeply polarized politics, particularly regarding gender issues, that besets America today.

Case in point: on Jan. 21, 2017—the day after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump—an estimated 500,000 activist women marched in Washington, D.C., and overall, some 3.5 million to 4.5 million women (and men) marched in all 50 states and on all seven continents to emphasize that women’s rights are human rights, and to protest proposals and policies of the new Republican administration.

It was the largest single-day protest in United States history.

How did we ever get to this point? Inquiring minds want to know, and Spruill’s comprehensive, detailed book holds a lot of the answers.

So, what’s the story? Hearken back 40 years to the National Women’s Conference held in Houston in November 1977, suggests Professor Spruill. It was this four-day gathering, she argues, that unleashed the divisive forces that have been buffeting the country ever since.

The women’s conference, a feminist initiative, was the only federally funded women’s rights conference of its kind in U.S. history. Its purpose? To identify a national women’s rights agenda.

The 20,000 delegates and celebrities who attended approved more than two dozen policy resolutions calling for a wide range of measures, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (at the time, just three states short of the 38 needed), affordable child care, equal pay for equal work, national healthcare, reform of divorce and rape laws, elimination of discriminatory insurance and credit practices, federal funding for abortion, and ending the deportation of immigrant mothers of American-born children.

“We promise to accept nothing less than justice for every woman,” poet Maya Angelou told the exhilarated crowd.

But the conference had an “unintended, equally revolutionary consequence,” writes attorney and author Gillian Thomas. Across town, an anti-feminist group, led by charismatic and savvy Phyllis Schlafly, held a “Pro-Life, Pro- Family” Rally aimed at melding politics with the religious right agenda. It turned out to be a wildly successful movement that grew rapidly and eventually attracted a large slice of the Republican Party.

This anti-feminist group was against the Equal Rights Amendment, against equal pay for equal work, against abortion, against any federally sponsored child care program or national health program, against women being drafted into the military. Schlafly and her allies worked to return the country to its identity as a Christian nation with traditional patriarchal families, where the husband, she said, should be “the ultimate decision maker.”

Four decades later, the fruit of these two bitterly opposed women’s movements culminated in the 2016 presidential election that sent Republican Donald Trump to the White House instead of Democrat Hillary Clinton. Schlafly campaigned for Trump, and he eulogized her at her funeral when she died two months before the November election.

Spruill argues that the feminist and anti-feminist advocates who burst onto the scene in the late 1960s and 1970s reshaped the nation’s gender politics, and the politics of the Democratic and Republican parties, too. (Remember that at the time of the Houston women’s conference, most Republicans “were moderate when it came to feminism,” Gillian Thomas says. “The 1976 [Republican] party platform, for instance, included support for the ERA.”

In fact, when the ERA was passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1972, support for it was strong among both Democrats and Republicans. Even conservative GOP Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina voted for the ERA, saying the amendment “represents the just desire of many women in our pluralistic society to be allowed a full and free participation in the American way of life, without hindrance just because they are women.”

Fast forward 40 years, and the question arises: was the Houston conference a mistake because of the anti-feminist movement that it spawned? Spruill says no. “The civil rights movement,” she said in an interview, “was bold and led to major changes. It also led to a backlash. But were civil rights activists wrong to have sought equal rights? I don’t believe so, and that’s the same view I have of the Houston conference.”

Spruill expects the division over what is best for women—and precisely what the government’s role should be—to continue “unless something really dramatic happens that I can’t foresee.” The chasm, she thinks, “seems more and more entrenched.”

The Republican and Democratic parties, Spruill adds, “are very polarized, and the issues about which they are polarized include things that are loaded with moral and religious significance, including abortion and gay rights. And these ideas, to the people who believe them on one side or the other, are things about which they believe one must not compromise. So I don’t see how we’re going to get out of this.”

Jan Collins is a Columbia- based freelance writer, editor, and journalist. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life ( Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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