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

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

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

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


Here Christina Wolbrecht boldly demonstrates how the Republican and Democratic parties have helped transform, and have been transformed by, American public debate and policy on women's rights. She begins by showing the evolution of the positions of both parties on women's rights over the past five decades. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Republicans were slightly more favorable than Democrats, but by the early 1980s, the parties had polarized sharply, with Democrats supporting, and Republicans opposing, such policies as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. Wolbrecht not only traces the development of this shift in the parties' relative positions--focusing on party platforms, the words and actions of presidents and presidential candidates, and the behavior of the parties' delegations in Congress--but also seeks to explain the realignment. The author considers the politically charged developments that have contributed to a redefinition and expansion of the women's rights agenda since the 1960s--including legal changes, the emergence of the modern women's movement, and changes in patterns of employment, fertility, and marriage. Wolbrecht explores how party leaders reacted to these developments and adopted positions in ways that would help expand their party's coalition. Combined with changes in those coalitions--particularly the rise of social conservatism within the GOP and the affiliation of social movement groups with the Democratic party--the result was the polarization characterizing the parties' stances on women's rights today.


At its 1980 convention, the Republican party refused to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in its platform, reversing a pattern of nearly forty years of official party support. in convention that same year, the Democratic party not only retained a pro-ERA plank but also pledged to provide financial support only to those candidates who backed the amendment. Just as the Republicans' move signaled a historic break, the Democratic party's action represented the culmination of an important shift; Democrats had traditionally been ambivalent, if not hostile, to the era. Four years later, feminists wielded enough power within the Democratic party that their central demand—a woman on the party's presidential ticket—was met. Moreover, by 1984 the parties had so diverged over women's rights that the women's movement's preeminent organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW), abandoned its traditional nonpartisanship and endorsed the Democratic ticket.

For women's rights and the American political parties, the lines are now drawn with considerable clarity. the Republican party has largely adopted an opposing position, distancing itself from feminism and siding with those who prefer more traditional women's roles. the Democratic party has placed itself at the other end of the women's rights spectrum, generally supporting public policies that assist in the expansion of social, political, and economic roles for women. in short, the two American parties have become polarized over the issue of women's rights, when once there was at the least consensus and, prior to that, perhaps even the opposite alignment.

These developments present a compelling empirical puzzle: Why did the parties adopt the positions they did on women's rights issues, and how and why have they changed? Party history vis-à-vis women's rights prior to the 1970s does not anticipate the present alignment; if anything, it suggests a tendency toward the very opposite arrangement. This work addresses this puzzle by developing a theoretically grounded explanation for the adoption and change of party issue positions and by applying that model to the specific case of the parties' relative positions on women's rights from 1952 to 1992.

While this research examines a particular empirical puzzle, it speaks to our understanding of American politics generally, particularly the Ameri-

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