Republican Feminists

Between Party Loyalty and Women’s Rights
GOP for ERA button. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard UniversityGOP for ERA button. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
By Julie Berebitsky

It is hard today to remember that the Republican Party once supported women’s issues, especially the ERA, and that in 1970 a Republican introduced the Senate’s first bill to legalize abortion. For women like Mary Dent Crisp, who was named cochair of the Republican National Committee in 1977, this was as it should be. Supporting women’s rights was simply following in the footsteps of the “Great Emancipator” and continuing the party’s historical emphasis on equal opportunity. In 1980, when the Republican platform abandoned support of the ERA and embraced a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, Crisp was faced with a choice: stay loyal to her party or to her feminist principles. After she openly criticized the platform, Ronald Reagan publicly rebuked her, and her time as a party leader ended. But her commitment to using the political process to gain rights for women did not end. Crisp quickly signed on as campaign manager for independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson, who had a female-friendly platform. After the election and for the remainder of her life, Crisp fought to return the Republican Party to what she believed were its ideological roots: individual freedom and limited government, represented most vividly in women’s right to abortion.

National Republican Coalition for Choice button. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryNational Republican Coalition for Choice button. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCrisp’s papers are one of a number of collections at the Schlesinger that remind us that Second Wave feminism was not a partisan movement: feminists came in many different stripes. The lifelong Republican Ernesta Drinker Ballard was a cofounder of the Philadelphia chapter of N.O.W. in 1967. (Also a horticulturist, she turned the Philadelphia Flower Show into an international sensation.) After 1980 Ballard’s activist work focused exclusively on reproductive rights; much of her time was spent organizing other pro-choice Republicans and trying to persuade the party to abandon its pro-life plank.

Ballard’s papers also document her tenure as chair of the board of the National Abortion Rights Action League in the mid-1980s. A clear minority on the board, Republican members often felt under attack. Ballard found it increasingly difficult to work with members who could not understand why she maintained her ties to the Republican Party, even though she publicly stated that she would not vote for an anti-choice candidate.

The Crisp and Ballard collections have enabled me to explore how the party’s sharp turn to the right affected individual Republican feminists. The Schlesinger also holds the records of many nonpartisan or bipartisan feminist organizations, such as the National Women’s Political Caucus, N.O.W., and the Women’s Equity Action League. These collections will allow me to explore what happened to these groups as “Republican” became a dirty word in some feminist circles. Using many sources, I hope to illuminate the evolution of the women’s movement on both an individual and a group level and to incorporate Republican women into the recent history of feminism.

For at least some of these women, reconciling feminist convictions with party loyalty was an agonizing process, and one that carried real risks of political disengagement. As a friend of Crisp’s wrote to her in 1980: “I made up my mind several years ago that I am a feminist before I am part of any other political group. . . . Sometimes I don’t know where I belong politically because of my stand for ERA, the whole women’s movement, and human rights. I’m becoming more and more liberal. Neither party represents me.”

Julie BerebitskyJulie BerebitskyJulie Berebitsky, a professor of history and women’s and gender studies and chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South, received a grant from the Schlesinger to conduct research at the library for a book she’s writing on Republican feminists. Berebitsky is the author of Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire (Yale University Press, 2012).

Search Year: