Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right

Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right

Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right

Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right


In the wake of the Nineteenth Amendment, Republican women set out to forge a place for themselves within the Grand Old Party. As Catherine Rymph explains, their often conflicting efforts over the subsequent decades would leave a mark on both conservative politics and American feminism.

Part of an emerging body of work on women's participation in partisan politics, Republican Women explores the dilemmas confronting progressive, conservative, and moderate Republican women as they sought to achieve a voice for themselves within the GOP. Rymph first examines women's grassroots organizing for the party in the decades following the initiation of women's suffrage. She then traces Marion Martin's efforts from 1938 to 1946 to shape the National Federation of Women's Republican Clubs, the party's increasing dependence on the work of women at the grassroots in the postwar years, and the eventual mobilization of many of these women behind Barry Goldwater, in defiance of party leaders.

From the flux of the party's post-Goldwater years emerged two groups of women on a collision course: a group of party insiders calling themselves feminists challenged supporters of independent Republican Phyllis Schlafly's growing movement opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Their battles over the meanings of gender, power, and Republicanism continued earlier struggles even as they helped shape the party's fundamental transformation in the Reagan years.


In 1975 Republican feminists seemed to be everywhere. The Republican president, Gerald Ford, supported the Equal Rights Amendment; his wife Betty toured the country campaigning for its ratification and speaking in support of abortion rights. Republicans sympathetic to a women's rights agenda were serving as governors of several states, including Iowa, Michigan, and Missouri. A proud feminist, Mary Louise Smith, chaired the Republican National Committee. Audrey Rowe Colom, an African American Republican, was serving as president of one of the most important feminist organizations of the seventies, the National Women's Political Caucus. Even the GOP'S staid auxiliary, the National Federation of Republican Women, had endorsed the ERA.

In the mid-1970s the second-wave feminist movement was becoming broadly, if not universally, accepted. Although the political component of the new feminism quickly became more identified with the Democratic Party, a core group of Republican women responded positively to the insights and objectives of the emerging women's movement and pressed the GOP to embrace a particular women's rights agenda. The Republican Party, floundering in the wake of the Watergate scandal, appeared ready to adopt that agenda as part of its rebuilding strategy.

In reality, the hold that Republican feminists had on the Grand Old Party was far more tenuous than they liked to believe. Already in 1975, a new movement ofsocial conservatism within the Republican Party was ascending, one that would marginalize Republican feminists and succeed in moving the party away from its traditional support for women's rights. In 1980 delegates affiliated with the New Right dominated the Republican presidential convention, nominated Ronald Reagan for president, and approved new platform planks explicitly at odds with many of the goals of Republican feminists, including ERA and abortion rights.

Mobilized by their opposition to feminism and empowered by the social transformations that were bringing women onto the political stage, socially conservative women became a critical component of the rising New Right coalition. As their allies gained strength within the party . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.