The Republican Party’s alleged “war” against women is fast emerging as a major trope of the 2012 elections. And the charge is largely true: As the GOP has become increasingly conservative, so too has it become increasingly hostile to feminism and insensitive to women’s issues.
But Democrats have not merely been horrified bystanders wringing their hands as this “war” has unfolded. The Democratic Party has actively encouraged the GOP’s descent into antifeminism. And though Democrats have reaped considerable gains from the fallout, their efforts have often ultimately been to the detriment of the country’s women.
As various accounts have pointed out, the Republican Party for most of its history was broadly supportive of women’s rights and aspirations, at any rate by the standards of the times. A Republican Congress endorsed the amendment giving women the vote in 1919, and 80 percent of the state legislatures that approved it were Republican-controlled. The party instituted gender-based affirmative action in 1940 by requiring the Republican National Committee to have one woman and one man from each state, decades in advance of similar reforms by the Democrats. Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, was the only woman senator for 24 years, and became the first woman to run for president. Dwight Eisenhower appointed more women to top posts than John F. Kennedy did.
The GOP’s stance shifted in the 1970s: Republicans played to the backlash against Roe v. Wade and feminism in the later part of that decade, and Ronald Reagan gratified the religious right by abandoning the GOP’s long-held support for the Equal Rights Amendment. The bitter struggles by Republican women to combat their party’s rightward tilt and accompanying opposition to women’s rights have been amply chronicled by the historians Tanya Melich and Catherine Rymph, among others. The latest example was Senator Olympia Snowe, who, in choosing not to seek reelection, pointed out that the GOP’s rigid and intolerant image turns off moderate, pro-business women who believe in limited but effective government.
Snowe’s view is shared by quite a few GOP leaders, including Mitt Romney, who are well aware that the “gender gap” could prove fatal to the party’s electoral chances in the fall elections. But efforts to downplay abortion in favor of economic issues have been undone by those Republicans who organized the infamous all-male panel on birth control and the Virginia proposal for transvaginal ultrasound probes (not to mention Rush Limbaugh’s misogynist rants and Rick Santorum’s momentarily surging candidacy).
It’s worth noting, however, that the Democratic Party has had no interest in trying to cool partisan debate over women’s issues, and every interest in making sure that no significant Republican feminist position emerges. The episode that best illustrates the Democratic approach in this regard was the successful effort to end the political career of Maryland Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella.
Morella, a former English professor and state legislator who also managed to raise nine children, was one of the leading feminists in Congress and among the most liberal House Republicans. She sponsored important legislation on domestic violence and women’s health, while opposing conservatives on gun control, gay rights, conservation, and abortion. She was also one of only six Republicans to vote against authorizing George W. Bush’s military action in Iraq. Her ability to work across the aisle made her a key player in bipartisan reform coalitions. But after Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Morella’s representation of some of Washington D.C.’s most affluent and liberal suburbs made her one of the Democrats’ leading targets. The Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature redrew her district to ensure that, as the state senate president gloated, “If she runs, she loses.”
The Congresswoman nonetheless chose to run for a ninth term in 2002. The Republican Party rallied around her: Bush held a fundraiser for her, the conservative Washington Times endorsed her, and the RINO-hunting Club for Growth chose not to challenge her. The reason Morella was so important for the GOP was not only because she was a consistent vote in favor of free trade, economic growth, and the Bush tax cuts, but because she helped counter the charge that the GOP was anti-woman.
It is to the Republican Party’s credit that it recognized how Morella contributed an important element of diversity in the caucus. But the National Organization for Women endorsed her Democratic opponent, on the grounds that “the ascension of right-wing leadership in the House” made Morella irrelevant. Morella narrowly lost the election and never ran for public office again. Democrats gained a seat, while Republicans lost a vital measure of heterogeneity.
NOW’s actions at that time were intensely partisan, which was perhaps understandable, since most of the organization’s funds and support came from Democrats. But the organization, by turning its back on Morella, in effect declared that feminism was no longer a bipartisan cause and that Republican women almost by definition could not be good feminists. The blowup over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood earlier this year provided further confirmation that women’s organizations caught up in partisan quarrels will have to side with the Democrats. The unfortunate upshot is that, as feminism ceases to be advocated by at least some people in both parties, it becomes a narrower cause and loses force in American life.
The Democrats, of course, can hardly be expected to resist concentrating their firepower on moderate Republicans from liberal-leaning districts, much as the Republicans went after moderate Blue Dog Democrats from conservative-leaning Southern districts in the last election. This is the Prisoner’s Dilemma of modern American politics, and both parties will be bound to act this way even though they recognize that the marginalization of moderates leaves everyone worse off. So while Democrats are at pains to remind Americans about the dangers of a sexist Republican Party, they will probably remain unaware that their efforts are making that outcome more likely.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
Update: The original published version of this article mistakenly said of Congressman Morella's campaign for re-election that the Club for Growth had been "persuaded to give her a pass." Though the Club for Growth did not challenge Morella's candidacy, TNR is not aware of its deliberations on the matter.