Women's Rights and the American Parties
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-