Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics

Image of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics
Release Date: 
February 27, 2017
Bloomsbury USA
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“provides a firm foundation for understanding the effect the women’s movement had on the political process.”

“There were two women’s movements in the 1970s: a women’s rights movement that enjoyed tremendous success, especially early in the decade, and a conservative women’s movement that formed in opposition and grew stronger as the decade continued. Each played an essential role in the making of modern American political culture.”

So begins Marjorie Spruill’s new book, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics. Spruill delves deep into the intricacies of the battle that erupted around the Equal Rights Amendment and the fight for women’s rights. She evaluates how the animosities the women’s rights movement generated among the opposition laid the groundwork for the polarizing political landscape that now exits.

Spruill’s book describes the heady days of the 1970s when the efforts to realize women’s rights surged. And the leading liberal and progressive women of the day, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and Gloria Steinem, used their positions to push for adoption and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Yet the book is not a one-sided paean to feminists. Spruill is, after all, a historian, and she details the work of women that saw the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as a condemnation of and threat to traditional family values. Those women, represented by Phyllis Schlafly, Dianne Edmondson, and Ann McGraw, became vociferous in their determination to combat the feminist juggernaut.

Former First Lady Betty Ford said, “Being a lady does not require silence.” And none of the women included in this book remained silent.

Regardless of where one stands on the issues of feminism, women’s rights, civil rights, traditional family values, or even liberal or conservative political theory, this book analyzes what happened in the country when women’s rights became a focal point for conservatives and liberals.

The ERA went to the states for ratification following the U.S. Senate’s March 22, 1972 vote. Passage seemed a foregone conclusion. Thirty states had ratified the amendment in the first year. Bipartisan support was no surprise because both major parties had included the amendment in their platforms since the 1940s. Even Strom Thurmond, the very conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina supported the amendment as representing, “the just desire of many women in our pluralistic society to be allowed a full and free participation.”

But not everyone was happy about the amendment. Conservative women, led by Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum, saw it as an attack on women and traditional family values. Schlafly believed already had equal rights and she did not want to lose the pedestal on which many perched. Schlafly became the primary nemesis of the women’s movement

But the Equal Rights Amendment was just the start of Schlafly’s campaign to reshape the country. As a dedicated anti-communist, Schlafly viewed the ERA and the women’s movement as another indication that her country was in peril. Her antagonism toward the women’s movement was direct and uncompromising, and the leading feminists and women’s rights organizations initially dismissed Schlafly as irrelevant.

While Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and other prominent women—on both sides of the political spectrum—relished their victories in Congress and the courts, they failed to foresee the tidal wave of organized opposition heading their way.

Spruill addresses the divisiveness caused by these competing camps in a resolute and comprehensive manner. She relates how Schlafly used the social and legal issues surrounding the ERA to rally conservative opposition to the amendment and the “feminist threat.” Schlafly influenced more than the downfall of the ERA; she leveraged power or her movement to hold politicians accountable.

Schlafly understood that these issues were enough to bring together a diverse coalition of people, organizations, and religious denominations—many of which had little in common. Her efforts coalesced into a movement that pursued a conservative agenda and was not limited to women’s rights. Spruill makes it clear the GOP willingly abdicated their long-held support of women’s rights to join forces with Schlafly and her cause.

Viewing Spruill’s book as only a historical account of the fight between feminists and right-wing conservative women is to miss its essence. Spruill is even-handed in her evaluation and presents the events with a historian’s objectivity.

Spruill writes, “[I]n the early 1970s both Democrats and Republicans supported feminist goals, encouraged by the vociferousness of the women’s rights movement and the quiescence of conservative women. By 1980 the two parties were lined up on opposite sides of a fierce batter between advocates of women’s rights and family values, a battle that continues to divide the nation.”

The book is well written and extensively documented. At times, the commentary can be repetitious and tedious. This could have been remedied with a firmer editorial hand; however, that does not take away from the importance of this book. This book provides a firm foundation for understanding the effect the women’s movement had on the political process.

While the shortcomings of the women’s movement in protecting their advances is well-documented in this book, it is the rise of conservative women and how they redirected the Republican Party’s positions that makes the book so interesting. Feminists and supporters or women’s rights will find this difficult to swallow, but this is an important book for them to read. Learning from mistakes and understanding the opposition is vital to developing a response.

Spruill sums up the consequences these situations created for the country,  “[A]s the personal became political and the political became personal, and the issues laden with religious or moral significance remained in the forefront of national debates, politicians increasingly found moderation was devalued, consensus was impossible and compromise was no longer tolerated by constituents. With Democratic and Republican politicians lined up on either side of these volatile gender-related issues, they tended to demonize their opponents and define issues strictly in partisan terms, a situation that contributed to political gridlock . . .”

According to Spruill, “they ushered in a new era in American politics—the beginning rather than the end of a protracted struggle over women’s rights and family values.”