The Two Women’s Movements

tags: feminism, womens history

Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She is the author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, and is working on a history of the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

Not even death could stop Phyllis Schlafly. Her final broadside, The Conservative Case for Trump, was released the day after she died at the age of 92 last September. It was a fitting bookend to her first, A Choice Not an Echo, her self-published endorsement of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Unlike many other Christian conservatives who backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the GOP’s 2016 primaries, Schlafly supported Trump from the outset. Early in the year, she gave an hour-long interview to Breitbart News, making the case that Trump represented the only chance to overturn the “kingmakers” (her word for the Republican establishment). Like Trump, Schlafly’s politics were often focused on a muscular concept of national security. She wanted to see a “fence” protecting the country’s southern border, and she argued that Democrats were recruiting “illegals” in order to bolster their electoral chances. Despite his three marriages, she saw Trump as an “old-fashioned” man whose priorities were hard work and family. After Schlafly died, Trump returned the love. He gave a eulogy at her funeral in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, raising a finger to deliver a promise: “We will never, ever let you down.”

Schlafly emerged on the national scene in the early 1970s, when she led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment through her Eagle Forum. Although she’d been well-known in conservative circles since the 1950s, antifeminism brought Schlafly new levels of recognition. In a few short years, she became a household name for a resurgent cultural conservatism, one that ultimately defeated the ERA and helped to elect Ronald Reagan president. Her rise during this period is the subject of Divided We Stand by the political historian Marjorie J. Spruill, a fascinating new account of the “two women’s movements” of the 1970s.

Not so long ago, there was little historical literature about the 1970s. One account of the decade, published in 2005, bears the cryptic title (an allusion to Joseph Heller’s novel) Something Happened. Today, there’s a wave of literature on the era, often approached through the sense of confusion and chaos that defined its art and culture (the title of another book: 1973 Nervous Breakdown). Spruill’s narrative joins the many works insisting on the decade as a turning point. Focusing on the 1977 International Women’s Year conferences, a series of state and national meetings sponsored by the federal government to create a set of principles on women’s rights for policy-makers, she tells the story of the cresting of feminism’s second wave and the counter-feminist mobilization that emerged in response.

From the vantage point of the present, there is much that seems remarkable about this time. Who can imagine, today or at any point in the past 30 years, the federal government funding conferences throughout the United States with an eye toward crafting some kind of proposal to address sexual inequality? But Spruill suggests that what initially appeared a victory for feminism ultimately became the springboard for a counter­revolution. The state meetings provided ample organizing opportunities for women in the nascent antifeminist movement, and the final national gathering in Houston was met by a “pro-family” rally that brought out tens of thousands. 

The strength of feminism—its claim to represent women as a whole—turned out to be a weakness as well, since those women who disagreed with its central tenets could puncture the moral claim of unity simply by insisting that the movement did not speak for them. As Spruill points out, “Solidarity among feminists was not the same as solidarity among American women.” In the end, she argues, the 1970s not only gave us some of the most important victories of the modern feminist movement, but also launched the opposition to it that would eventually put Donald Trump in the White House. ...

Read entire article at The Nation

comments powered by Disqus