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247 12 The Utah Eagle Forum Legitimizing Political Activism as Women’s Work melanie newport Historian Melanie Newport discovered that oral history was the only way for her to study the Eagle Forum, a conservative political organization that has helped shape the political culture of the West. Although many of these women believe that a woman’s place is in the home, they also believe that women need to preserve traditional family values in the community and practice what some historians have called “municipal housekeeping.” Eagle Forum records are not open to researchers , and talking to participants was Newport’s only source of information . The oral history provided more than just stories. Newport was able to develop relationships with women who felt marginalized by the “liberal bias of higher education.” The interviewees were pleased that Newport took their views seriously, and Newport acknowledges that conducting the oral history interviews opened her mind as well. Her willingness to listen opened doors for further research . when alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin burst onto the national political stage during the 2008 presidential elections, observers gawked at the contradictions between her conservative religious politics, ideas about gender roles, and her own presence in the public sphere. Surprised at the presence of a mother 248 melanie newport of five in a major election, observers from left to right struggled to make sense of her values and her insistence that her identities as a mother and Christian were in fact not at odds with her place in national politics. One commentator angrily decried, “An individualism exemplified by Palin, the frontierswoman who somehow has managed to ‘balance’ five children and her political career with no need for support—is leading to a culture-wide crack-up.”1 Though it remains to be seen if Palin’s moment constituted a “a culturewide crack-up,” her religiosity and motherhood were part of an established tradition of conservative women’s political work in the West. The political influence of conservative women in the West has been well documented. In the 1950s and 1960s, “housewife activists ” held coffee klatches and volunteered for Republican political campaigns.2 “Goldwater Girls” strove to elect Arizona senator Barry Goldwater president in 1964.3 In California, conservative women flocked to events and rallies for Foundation for Economic Education and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. Women defined their participation in a variety of political activities— through the Republican Party, anticommunism, and education initiatives , for example—as a critical expression of their commitment to traditional family values. Because women were at home during the day, they performed political “housework,” such as staffing precincts and stuffing envelopes. Educating each other on important issues, women built political networks to generate support for a wide range of socially conservative issues from the 1970s to the present. Governor Palin also spoke to the central conundrum for the women who came to accept and advance the Republican Party’s conservative agenda—the paradox of justifying women’s work outside the home while using politics to protect the interests of “traditional families.” Perhaps nowhere was this paradox as central to state political discourse than in Utah, the birthplace of the Tea Party and the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Since the battle to prevent the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, the Utah chapter of the Eagle Forum has been a critical influence in shifting the state’s politics to the right.4 Appealing to a largely LDS constituency, the The Utah Eagle Forum 249 Eagle Forum became a mouthpiece for conservative women and a lightning rod for controversy. Oral histories with feminists, LDS women, and Eagle Forum activists reveal not only the reasons and motivations for conservative women’s activism but the strategies they have developed to justify and legitimize the political work they do outside the home. The story of the political mobilization of conservative women in Utah begins not with a Latter-day Saint but a Catholic. Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly was a product of the “distinctive women’s political culture” of the emerging New Right. An educated mother of six, Schlafly got her start volunteering with the Junior League and the Republican Party. Her political views gained local prominence when she ran for congressional office in 1952. Despite losing, Schlafly stayed involved with politics as an anticommunist writer and through her work with the Republican Party and as a chapter president of the National Federation...


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