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When Did the Republican Party Turn Its Back on Women and Women's Issues?

Despite a Long History of Backing Women, GOP Wages a War on Women Today


Updated October 31, 2012
It may seem unbelievable in the context of modern society and the alleged "Republican War on Women," but of the two major political parties in America, historically the Republican Party was the one that most rigorously supported women's rights. In fact, Republicans were instrumental in securing women's suffrage and supporting a woman's place in the House -- the House of Representatives.

In 1919, Republican James R. Mann introduced an amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. The legislator whose vote enabled the 19th Amendment to become the law of the land was a Republican from Tennessee. The first woman elected Congress was a Republican -- Jeannette Rankin from Montana who served twice (1917-1919 and 1941-1943) and was one of the few suffragists elected to Congress.

As recently as the early 1970s, Republican leaders were prominent in their support of women's issues. The most notable one was President Richard Nixon. In an article for New York magazine, Frank Rich observed, "Nixon had a progressive GOP take for his time: He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, appointed an impressive number of talented women, and in 1972 signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to strengthen the policing of workplace discrimination."

Yet Nixon's presidency also marked the end of support for women. Rich adds:

"[Nixon] also vetoed a bipartisan bill enabling child care for the millions of mothers then rapidly joining the workforce....[stating]t that child care would threaten American families by encouraging women to work. The inspiration for this unexpected reactionary broadside came...from cynical, secular political strategists eager to exploit the growing backlash against the sixties feminist movement."

With the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the threat of women's increasing freedom, including sexual freedom, became a rallying cry for the next generation of rising GOP leaders, including one whose name was destined to become a household word and who pushed his party toward an anti-woman position.

When Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich first ran for public office in 1974, he touted himself as the defender of family values, using the slogan, "Newt's family is like your family." Although he lost that bid, his successful Congressional campaign in 1978 against Virginia Shapard mined that theme. Shapard, a state senator who (like Nixon) was an ERA supporter and had paid for her own campaign, was the perfect (though unwitting) foil for Gingrich to sharpen his attack on women who sought positions that threatened "family values." As Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer wrote:

"[Gingrich] ran an ad blasting his opponent, Virginia Shapard, saying, 'If elected, Virginia will move to Washington, but her husband and her children will remain in Griffin.' Under Gingrich's photo, it said: 'When elected, Newt will keep his family together.'

And he did, until he filed for divorce 16 months later."

She was the first of many opponents to experience what would be fined-tuned into Gingrich's -- and later the GOP's -- pointed attacks at a woman's right to self-determination and the same opportunities and benefits as men. Gingrich wasn't the only one turning the clock back on women. A new attitude swept through the Republican Party, and many of the gains of the 1970s were DOA by the 1980 Republican National Convention (RNC). According to Frank Rich:
A 1972 plank supporting federal assistance for day-care services was softened in 1976, then dropped entirely at the Reagan convention of 1980. A 1972 stipulation that 'every woman should have the freedom to choose whatever career she wishes—and an equal chance to pursue it' also vanished. The 1980 platform instead took a patriarchal stance, applauding mothers and homemakers for 'maintaining the values of this country.'
The 1992 RNC was even worse. Characterized by Rich as "the GOP convention from hell" it included an address by Marilyn Quayle, the vice presidential nominee's wife, in which she stated "most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women." In a disturbing (but prescient) statement that would be echoed in the 2012 election cycle 'rape remarks' made by GOP candidates two decades later, Rep. Henry Hyde said at a convention platform hearing, "I can’t imagine a crime more egregiously awful than forcible rape....There is honor in having to carry to term, not exterminating the child. From a great tragedy, goodness can come."

By 2012, the GOP had turned its back on a history that spanned decades of support for women. Urged along by self-identified Tea Party candidates elected in 2010, Republicans began to systematically eliminate or blunt existing laws that support and benefit women. This wave of anti-women sentiment -- and the legislation it spawned -- came to be known as "the Republican War on Women."

Rich, Frank. "Stag Party." NewYork magazine at nymag.com. 25 March 2012.
Scheer, Robert. "Gingrich Puts a Price on His Family Values : He sheltered his $4-million book bonanza from his struggling, non-trophy ex-wife." Los Angeles Times at articles. latimes.com. 25 December 1994.

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