- Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics by Marjorie J. Spruill
Noted historian Marjorie J. Spruill has written a well-researched, detailed history of the modern-day fight over women's rights and its "essential role" (1) in bringing the United States to the fractious state we currently endure. Her immediate focus is the battle sparked by the 1977 National Women's Conference (NWC), the "crest of the 'second wave' of American feminism," held in Houston to celebrate the United Nations' declaration of a "Decade for Women" (2). Delegates from each state were tasked with adopting a "National Plan of Action" to tell Congress and the president what, as President Gerald R. Ford asked, would make the country "a more perfect union" for women's equality (2).
Among the several goals that feminists (Republicans as well as Democrats), supported in the early 1970s, three emerged as lightning rods that attracted a "firestorm" (71) of conservative opposition: the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, reproductive freedom, and the fact that the NWC was conceptualized by the United Nations and [End Page 357] funded by the United States government. As Spruill shows, the "ascendance of the women's rights movement within the national governing establishment" offended women "deeply invested in traditional women's roles" (71).
Steeped in Christian evangelical and fundamentalist teachings, anti-Communist political rhetoric, and nationalist rejection of the United Nations, thousands of women (and men) garnered support from like-minded think tanks, organizations, and political fund-raising groups. Phyllis Schlafly emerged as the key to focusing their energy: a skilled organizer and incendiary speaker with ties to the John Birch Society and back-channel support from the Ku Klux Klan (which she denied), she regarded feminism as a radical "assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother, and on the family as the basic unit of society" (71).
In thirteen chapters and an epilogue, Spruill painstakingly documents the rise not only of a "feminist establishment" (14) led by Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and others, but also of Schlafly's "alternative to women's lib" (93). Spruill describes their duels from the state conferences leading up to the national; through the stormy four days and aftermath of the NWC itself; the launch of the pro-family movement at a concurrent meeting in Houston; post-conference conflicts over the ERA and other reforms; and successive, increasingly polarized political campaigns, stopping in 2016.
Texans took part on both sides; feminists included Anne Armstrong, Nikki Van Hightower, Liz Carpenter, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Bird Johnson Robb, and Sarah Weddington. Among the conservatives was Lottie Beth Hobbs, a Fort Worth Church of Christ activist (and founder of the group Women Who Want to Be Women) who mobilized anti-ERA colleagues in several states to join Schlafly's Stop ERA campaign; together they ultimately prevented its ratification. (Texas had ratified it and had also approved its own state ERA.) Of special note is the conversion of adopted Texan George H. W. Bush from progressive to conservative on women's issues, although Presidents Ford and Carter also reined in their feminist inclinations in the face of the Schlafly crusade along with many members of Congress.
In Spruill's comprehensive chronology of groups, events, and individuals, readers can discern the emergence of "a new kind of cultural warfare" (142), the rise of what we now call identity politics, the increasing use of simplistic, polarizing rhetoric, and a dynamic in which optimistic and arguably naïve feminists were too often surprised by the righteous vitriol directed at them. Conservative tactics—exaggeration, baseless assertions, stereotyping, homophobia, and appeals to religious fervor—spread to political campaigns. One dispirited moderate Republican described conservative Congressional victories in 1978 as the result of "the new partnership of racism and sexism" (303). [End Page 358]
Spruill's thesis, stated in the book's title, that the polarized culture we have...