The Politics of Women's Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change

By Christina Wolbrecht | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Women's Rights in the House and Senate

THUS FAR, my discussion of the transformation and polarization of the parties on women's rights has focused on the political parties as represented by their national organizations, presidents, and presidential candidates. Examination of the parties as organizations and executives has indeed suggested a change in relative positioning vis-à-vis women's rights. Before the late 1960s, Republicans were perceived as more supportive of most women's rights issues, particularly the ERA, but differences in terms of platforms were not particularly great. The parties were quite similar on women's rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as the decade of the 1970s wore on, each party adopted increasingly divergent positions. After 1980, the two parties stood on opposing sides, with the Democrats embracing, and the Republicans eschewing, feminism. The goal of this chapter is to determine if and to what extent this transformation has characterized the parties in Congress as well.

Previous scholarship in this area has focused almost exclusively on party organizations and executives, with the parties in Congress receiving only cursory attention (cf. Costain 1991; Freeman 1987). Information culled from various sources, however, suggests a similar pattern to that described in chapter 2: greater Republican support before the 1970s, general bipartisanship in the early 1970s, and greater Democratic support thereafter. For example, in her study of the women's movement, Costain (1992) finds Republican membership positively associated with ERA sponsorship from 1963 to 1971. Accounts of Congressional activity on women's rights in the early 1970s emphasize bipartisanship (Orfield 1975; Freeman 1975). Research on female legislators has examined whether women in elected office are more supportive of women's rights than are their male counterparts, often including party as a control. These studies generally find Democratic party membership correlated with support for women's rights since the early 1970s (cf. Burrell 1994). As this brief discussion suggests, previous work has not tracked the partisanship of women's rights support in Congress consistently from the early 1950s to the early 1990s. Students of Congressional realignment examining all or part of this period have given little or no attention to women's rights (cf. Rohde 1991; Sinclair 1982).

This analysis thus represents a unique attempt to systematically track the phenomenon of changes in the relative party positions on women's rights

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