The Two Women’s Movements

The Two Women’s Movements

Feminism has been on the march since the 1970s, but so has the conservative backlash.


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.

As the decade began, feminism was on the march, not just in the streets but in electoral politics. Many historians have focused primarily on its radical edge: the consciousness-raising groups, the Women’s Strike for Equality, the abortion speak-outs, the writings of people like Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone. Spruill, by contrast, paints a picture of feminism in the early 1970s as a pragmatic, bipartisan movement, one that was focused on winning greater economic and political power for women rather than on challenging male authority in the family and home.

There were certainly ample grounds on which to fight. In 1971, men held 98 percent of the seats in Congress. The National Organization for Women had to press the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to consider cases of sexual discrimination as part of its purview. Until a 1975 Supreme Court ruling, states were permitted to exclude women from juries. Although she evokes the broader cultural politics of feminism, Spruill sees changing these political and legal inequalities as the central goal of the movement. After all, the politics of sexuality and the family were inextricably connected with women’s structural rights: Roe v. Wade was preceded by a 1972 ruling that legalized the prescription of birth control to unmarried women.

For Spruill, what is most notable about the early 1970s is how mainstream feminism already was. As she notes (it’s the title of Chapter 2 in her book), there was something of a “feminist establishment” by that time. She points to the Kennedy administration’s decision to set up the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 to explore the role of women in American life. Its report, “American Women,” was published in 1963, the same year that The Feminine Mystique came out. Indeed, Betty Friedan was an ad­viser to the commission. By the late 1960s, states throughout the country were undertaking similar investigations. The Republican Party had backed the Equal Rights Amendment beginning in the 1940s, whereas Democrats were wary about supporting an amendment that would overturn labor legislation protecting and benefiting women. Congress passed a bill creating a national child-care system (subsequently vetoed by President Nixon), as well as the 1974 Women’s Educational Equity Act, which was intended to fund programs to counter “sex-role socialization and stereotyping.” President Ford appointed women’s-rights advocates like Jill Ruckelshaus, dubbed the “Gloria Steinem of the Republican Party,” to leadership positions. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond supported the ERA in the early ’70s.

This emerging feminist consensus was undone by the women who became part of the antifeminist mobilization. These were women who insisted on the unique nature of women’s identities as mothers and homemakers. They blamed the second-wave feminism of the ’60s and ’70s for leading women astray, and they were drawn to Schlafly, a Catholic mother of six whose hair was always perfectly coiffed and who preferred pastel dresses to pants.

To her detractors, Schlafly seemed impossibly prim. But to her followers, she looked like a true “lady.” Schlafly had been an activist for years. She got her start in 1952, when she ran for Congress from Illinois as a 27-year-old anti­communist housewife. Her Goldwater book, which argued that the “New York kingmakers” in the GOP had sold out the party’s conservative base, became the most widely distributed tract of the 1964 primaries. Schlafly’s focus was foreign policy; she hadn’t been especially interested in women’s issues when she started out in politics. But she knew a constituency when she saw one, and in 1972, she published an essay attacking the ERA titled “What’s Wrong With ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?”

Schlafly’s sneering portrayal of feminists would be familiar to anyone who follows the alt-right today. American women, Schlafly wrote, were “the most privileged” class of people ever to have lived, and the real heroes of women’s liberation were the men who’d invented the sewing machine, the automobile, and frozen food. Thanks to them, modern mothers were free to spend time enjoying their children and perhaps to take a part-time job or volunteer outside the home if they wanted more to do. There was no real problem of inequality; instead, the “aggressive females on television talk shows yapping about how mistreated American women are” were tricking women into feeling aggrieved. Ms. magazine, according to Schlafly, was filled with “sharp-tongued, high-pitched whining complaints by unmarried women” who “view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” The magazine’s subtext was “how satisfying it is to be a lesbian.”

Schlafly was careful to say that of course she believed in more opportunities for women—she just didn’t think the ERA could secure them. Instead, it would rob women of their special place in society, while also failing to deliver on its promises of equal pay and political representation, thus leaving women worse off than before. Meanwhile, the ERA was being promoted by those in the Republican Party who condescended to people like Schlafly—a “tight little clique running things from the top” that refused to give “equal rights” to delegates who rejected the amendment.

Although Schlafly was Catholic, the vision she promoted throughout the 1970s appealed to a host of conservative Protestant and Mormon women as well. Spruill paints a picture of antifeminism as a rollicking political movement, one that—ironically, like feminism itself— offered women a way to participate in a world outside the family. Along with the stories of feminist leaders like former Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Midge Costanza, an adviser to President Carter, Spruill tells the story of women on the right like Lottie Beth Hobbs of the Church of Christ, founder of the memorably named group Women Who Want to Be Women, which built on fundamentalist Christian networks and Bible-study groups to recruit women to the cause. Hobbs wrote a flyer titled “Ladies Have You Heard?” widely known as “The Pink Sheet” for its pink paper, which was circulated through church newsletters, local newspapers, and beauty parlors. The ERA, it warned, would demolish family life, destroy homes, bring an end to chivalry, cause women to be drafted into the Army, and force them to use unisex public bathrooms. Ultimately, feminism was part of a secular-humanist crusade that sought to subvert American values from within—and that would leave the United States open to a communist revolution or takeover. Even efforts that might seem worthwhile, such as shelters for battered women, appeared ominous to the forces of antifeminism: They were havens that would allow feminists to nurture women’s grievances against their husbands and foment discord in otherwise happy families.

In 1975, inspired by the United Nations (which had declared 1975–1985 the Decade for Women), Congress mandated that each state hold a convention to elect delegates for a national meeting on women’s issues in Houston. The goal was to create a National Plan of Action that could guide future legislation on women’s rights. The rise of the antifeminist movement meant that the Houston conference in the fall of 1977—and the state conferences leading up to it—would not represent the triumph of political mobilization that its original organizers had hoped. From the outset, the state conferences were heavily contested. In Oklahoma, busloads of conservative women showed up and voted for a resolution stating that homemaking was the “most vital and rewarding of careers for women.” In Alabama, conservatives tried to disrupt the proceedings in any way they could, including paying the $2 registration fee with 200 pennies. In Mississippi, a group called Mississippians for God, Country and Family overwhelmed the feminists who were present. The group managed to take over the proceedings, passed its own platform (which included vigorous denunciations of abortion, day care, and “sin and immorality”), and elected a delegation to the national convention that included six men.

The Houston convention turned out to be not much better. True, it was a milestone gathering with some moments of historic rapprochement, such as Betty Friedan’s endorsement of a resolution calling for equal rights for lesbians. As she wrote later, Friedan had always feared that feminism would be confused with lesbianism, but she was even more concerned about the right’s efforts to “fan a hysteria of hate and fear.” And while there was substantial debate over abortion rights, the conference ultimately supported them.

But what happened within the conference was less important than what transpired outside. Schlafly had organized a Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally in Houston at the same time. The crowd was large, almost all white (in contrast to the feminist conference), and it was energized. A former Houston mayor welcomed the participants of the rally warmly. One 34-year-old woman from Bismarck, North Dakota—a mother of nine—described driving down in a yellow van with six other women: “We felt we had the Lord knocking on the top of the van all the way down.”

After the National Women’s Conference was over, it became clear that President Car­ter was ambivalent about pushing forward the recommendations contained in the National Plan of Action; instead, he fired Abzug, who had been chair of the conference and co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women. As the Democrats moved to distance themselves from the feminist movement, the Republican Party embraced the ascendant antifeminist mobilization. After 40 years, support for the ERA was finally excised from the GOP platform in 1980. Schlafly trumpeted the successes of Houston, invoking the “ERAers, the abortionists, and the lesbians” at the conference to rally people to her cause. Indeed, the plan adopted by the National Women’s Conference, with its support for abortion, its opposition to discrimination, and its enthusiasm for the ERA, became a conservative organizing vehicle. One activist pronounced it the “best recruiting tool I’ve ever had…I just spend twenty minutes reading it to them. That’s all I have to do.”

The final chapters of Divided We Stand trace a line from the antifeminist politics of the 1970s to those of today. The women who were dismissed by feminist leaders in 1977 are the foremothers of the women who voted for Trump in 2016, and Schlafly was at their helm once again. Far from being alienated by Trump’s crude machismo, many of these women saw him as a “family man”—a patriarch with sexual swagger, a man of authority willing to use his power and wealth to command women—and this perception actually deepened his support among some voters.

In other ways, too, the events in Houston in 1977 seemed to anticipate the 2016 election. In Spruill’s account, a feminist establishment backed by Washington faced off against a ragtag group of private citizens, the antifeminists brought into the streets by Schlafly’s call to arms. The leaders of the Houston conference were hubristic, in the manner of Hillary Clinton: They simply assumed that they could count on the allegiance of women, so much so that they never really cared to look across the street in Houston at the crowds massing outside the convention center.

Yet what stands out most in Spruill’s account is just how different feminism and its opponents were in the 1970s, contrasted with the feminism and antifeminism of our moment. Feminism was then a new mobilization, one replete with ideas, many of which were in conflict with one another, but all of which sought to advance a deep transformation of American society. The leaders in Washington were shaped by the women throughout the country whose politics powered theirs. This was light-years away from what passes for feminism in mainstream politics today, embodied most clearly in Hillary Clinton. It was a movement with a grassroots base, one that reached deep into the culture, and one that often took a forthright, confrontational stance toward the existing distribution of power and resources—a stance very different from a vision of empowerment conceived mostly in terms of integration into a corporate meritocracy.

Schlafly and others tried to paint feminism as a movement of insiders, of powerful women with Washington connections who sought to dupe their less-privileged sisters. But the various leaders, from Bella Abzug to Jill Ruckelshaus, and the state commissions—even the National Women’s Conference—were not really what gave feminism its power or made it appear dangerous to the conservatives who opposed it. Far more important were the millions of women who met in small groups, attended marches and demonstrations, and recognized the gap between the cartoonish stereotypes of femininity so prevalent around them and the realities of their own lives.

Antifeminism always had a different dynamic: Its power came from its alliance with institutions and people committed to rolling back the welfare state, opposing godless communism, and protecting companies from both government regulation and workers’ movements. As Schlafly’s own career and roots in organized conservatism suggest, the antifeminist agenda was always very closely connected to that of the larger right. It did not seek to revolutionize social relations, but to bolster traditional society. It accepted a conservative politics of God and capitalism, military might, and hierarchy in the workplace as well as in the home. Its appeal came from the life it breathed into a fantasy of complete feminine fulfillment through service to family, church, children, and men—an ideal linked to a broader vision in which the family itself was under attack.

Many women in the 1970s may have been drawn to the cause because of the ways that it glorified their work in the home: planning and cooking meals, doing laundry, caring for children, and keeping the social bonds of the community intact. This work was and often remains invisible in modern society despite its necessity, and the antifeminism of the 1970s recognized it, extolled it, even celebrated it. (It should go without saying that such enthusiasm was always limited to ideology; the antifeminists didn’t propose any material support that might actually make the labor of care easier.) But even if women felt that antifeminism praised their household work, granting them a sense of importance that was hard to come by otherwise, for leaders such as Schlafly, let alone the Mississippi men who sat on the Houston delegation, antifeminism was really part of a much larger political program—one that had to do with rolling back liberalism overall. Despite the central role of women in pushing it forward, in certain key ways the antifeminist mobilization was never about women at all.

Today, it is even less so. When conservative provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos mock “feminists” for being overweight, drinking venti frappuccinos, and damaging men with false rape claims, does anyone think he is doing so on behalf of women, let alone saving the endangered family? The arguments are repetitive, echoing much of what was said in the 1970s, yet the constituency has changed. Instead of speaking to and for religious women, the antifeminist cause seems to have been taken up today by young men who see society as a whole as a desperate competition—one in which some people get luxury jets and lush resorts and others get work requirements for Medicaid—­and who fear being “losers” in this war of all against all.

Divided We Stand evokes two movements, two equal mobilizations, struggling over the role of women in America, each with its own well-intentioned supporters, divided in their vision of the nation and their sense of the place of families and women within it. But is this parallel framework really the right one? In the book’s final pages, Spruill likens Houston to Seneca Falls, suggesting that “most Americans” now hold “progressive views on women’s and gender issues.” The ERA is back on the march, with the Nevada State Legislature ratifying the amendment earlier this year, 35 years past the deadline. The election of Trump obviously tapped into antifeminist politics, but it has also galvanized women revolted by his brand of leering masculinity and its connections to the politics of wealth and privilege, who are seeking to build a new feminism that connects women’s rights to a broader welfare state and deeper economic security. Underneath it all is the reality that women’s lives conform less and less to the image of total submersion in family life once peddled by Schlafly and company. The promises of the National Women’s Conference in Houston, and the visions of 1970s feminism, have not yet been fulfilled—but they remain as beacons for a new generation.

Ad Policy