The Politics of Women's Rights
FUNDAMENTALLY, this research concerns change. Moreover, it examines change in an issue area—women's rights—that has involved some of the most momentous social transformations of the twentieth century. Not long ago it was commonly held that women's place was in the home, that women who did work outside the home should earn less than men, and that women lacked the emotional fortitude to serve as political leaders (see McGlen and O'Connor 1998). That these beliefs have generally, if not entirely, been dismissed stands as “one of the biggest social changes of our times” (The Economist 1997, 87). This transformed societal mindset has been accompanied, and in many cases preceded, by a major revolution in the participation of women in social, economic, and political life. By a wide margin (although not as wide as many may prefer), more women today work outside the home, achieve advanced levels of educational and professional attainment, and hold elected and appointed office than did a mere forty years ago. With changes of this magnitude, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been a transformation of political alignments as well.
In the 1950s and 1960s, women's rights politics was limited to a few interested individuals—activists, interest groups, and interested members of Congress and the various presidential administrations—and a few policy issues, mainly concerning equality and nondiscrimination. Institutionally, activity centered around the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor (Harrison 1988). The nexus of the debate—protection versus equality— was recognized by participants and had characterized women's rights politics since before suffrage. Organized labor and social feminism preferred the protectionist status quo, business interests and equality feminists favored greater legal equality for women. Women's rights thus fit Baumgartner and Jones's (1993) description of an issue in equilibrium: limited participation, general agreement as to the terms of the debate, and stable alliances. The Republican party was generally perceived as more supportive of women's rights, a perception confirmed by an examination of cosponsorship activity in Congress. Party platforms reveal less of a difference between the parties' positions, although observers characterized the GOP as more supportive. Across the 1960s, partisan differences declined. In general, neither party devoted much attention to women's rights.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the women's rights equilibrium was