Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in the Seventies

Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in the Seventies

Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in the Seventies

Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in the Seventies


Most histories of modern American politics tell a similar story: that the Sunbelt, with its business friendly environment, right-to-work laws, and fierce spirit of frontier individualism, provided the seedbed for popular conservatism. Stacie Taranto challenges this narrative by positioning New York State as a central battleground. In 1970, under the governorship of Republican Nelson Rockefeller, New York became one of the first states to legalize abortion. By 1980, however, conservative, antifeminist Republicans with broad suburban appeal--symbolized by figures such as Ronald Reagan--had usurped power from these so-called Rockefeller Republicans. What happened during the intervening decade?

In Kitchen Table Politics, Taranto investigates the role that middle-class, mostly Catholic women played both in the development of conservatism in New York State and in the national shift toward a conservative politics of "family values." Far from Albany, a short train ride away from the feminist activity in New York City, white, Catholic homemakers on Long Island and in surrounding suburban counties saw the legalization of abortion in the state in 1970 as a threat to their hard-won version of the American dream. Borrowing tactics from church groups and parent-teacher associations, these women created the New York State Right to Life Party and organized against several feminist initiatives, including defeating an effort to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution in 1975.

These self-described "average housewives," Taranto argues, were more than just conservative shock troops; instead, they were inventing a new, politically viable conservatism centered on the heterosexual traditional nuclear family that the GOP's right wing used to broaden its electoral base. Figures such as activist Phyllis Schlafly, New York senator Al D'Amato, and presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan viewed the Right to Life Party's activism as offering a viable model to defeat feminist initiatives and win family values votes nationwide. Taranto gathers archival evidence and oral histories to piece together the story of these homemakers, whose grassroots organizing would shape the course of modern American conservatism.


The inspiration for this book grew from going door-to-door in 2004 collecting donations for the Democratic National Committee on behalf of John Kerry’s presidential campaign. I was disappointed to be stationed in Rhode Island instead of an exciting swing state like Ohio, but being there made the most sense. I was about to begin graduate school in the area, where I intended to research American women during World War ii. That plan shifted after canvassing Rhode Island for Democratic cash. Wealthier suburban neighborhoods were our best bet. Anecdotally, it seemed that a Volvo or Subaru in the driveway guaranteed hundred-dollar checks from people eager to expound on President George W. Bush’s worst policy blunders.

We also visited many lower-middle-and working-class neighborhoods— voters who had been the backbone of the New Deal coalition, yet whose support for the party was less assured in recent years. As naïve young staffers, we thought we could convince this demographic to open their wallets. These were neighborhoods likely to benefit, for example, from Kerry’s promise of national healthcare. We suspected that issues such as abortion might repel some of these voters. Still, this was the “blue state” of Rhode Island. These were mostly Catholic families, not the Evangelicals our friends were confronting elsewhere. We were wrong.

Older women, especially ones with rosary beads and other visible Catholic insignia, were the most hostile. They said they would never vote for Kerry, a fellow Catholic, because he backed legal abortion. They liked his economic message and used to be Democrats, but what they called “family values issues” now took precedence. the women had heard much of the same from their Catholic leaders and had been a target of the Republican Party for decades. When, I wondered, did this concept of “family values” emerge, and why did it . . .

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