Activities at the 1988 Republican Convention
by Jo Freeman
Published in off
our backs, November 1988, pp. 10-11, 14.
A feminist presence re-emerged at the 1988 Republican Convention after
an eight year hibernation. It was primarily focused on abortion, which
still divides the party despite the fact that the far right continues
to write the platform on all issues directly affecting women. However,
since delegate polls indicated that those going to New Orleans last
August distributed themselves on the political spectrum pretty much
the way they did in 1984, there was no consensus on what this means
for the future of a party headed by George Bush.
Feminists made their first appearance at the hearings before the platform
Subcommittee on Family and Community. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans
spend the week before their convention hearing testimony and writing
their platform. In 1988 representatives from both NOW and NARAL presented
their proposals. This was a "first" for both organizations
even though neither Kim Gandy (NOW) nor Kate Michelman (NARAL) expected
changes in the platform to result. The NWPC, which has co-ordinated
past convention activities though its Republican Women's Task Force,
did not send any one to New Orleans this year, although New York Congressman
Bill Green had spoken for the NWPC at a May 31 Platform Committee
hearing in Kansas City. NWPC President Irene Natividad said the NWPC's
views were given by New York member Tanya Melich, who officially testified
for the New York State Republican Family Committee of which she is
the Executive Director.
Melich asked the Platform Committee "to exclude all abortion
language from the platform, thus emphasizing the fact that we can
each hold our own strongly felt views and still be tolerant of others."
Michelman urged a reproductive choice plank. Neither was successful
as the final platform adamantly supported a human life amendment and
opposed "public revenues for abortion ... [or] organizations
which advocate or support abortion."
The road to this repeat of the 1984 planks was not a smooth one. In
1984, a motion to soften the language failed for lack of a second.
In 1988 more moderate voices were at least heard before they were
defeated. The first move was made by Lynn Glaze of Delaware who moved
to substitute Melich's proposal favoring family planning programs
to prevent unwanted pregnancies for the anti-abortion plank. Glaze,
who described herself as a "ringer", had only met Melich
at the hearings. She had been a last minute substitute for Delaware's
Senator Roth and had only been involved in Delaware politics for a
few years. She said her daughter was a feminist lawyer in California
and urged her to speak out when she was appointed to the Platform
Committee. She had planned to do so anyway even though she had had
no prior contact with the NWPC or any other feminist advocate.
When Bunny Chambers of Oklahoma successfully tabled her motion Glaze
tried again by moving to substitute the language from the 1976 Republican
Platform. That year the party favored "a continuance of the public
dialogue on abortion" while still supporting a constitutional
amendment to ban it. When this was also tabled John Easton of Vermont
moved to substitute the 1980 plank, which essentially added to the
1976 language an objection to the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion.
When Chambers once again moved to table, Glaze insisted on a roll
call vote. She and Easton were joined by Edgar Ross of the Virgin
Islands as the "no" votes. Not present to watch the platform
subcommittee vote against the party's 1976 and 1980 planks was Sen.
Lowell Weicker (Conn.), who had told the press that he would
be proposing pro-choice substitutes. Weicker had returned to Washington
the day before.
Throughout this tense maneuvering there was no actual debate on the
issues. Chambers said later that she had used the tabling route because
she didn't want the public to see the party bickering over an issue
that was long since settled. C-SPAN television cameras were present
the entire time. Their presence may also explain the lack of questions
of the feminist speakers when they testified the day before. In 1984,
when the NWPC's Mary Stanley and former Republican National Committee
chair Mary Louise Smith testified in favor of the ERA they were barraged
with questions about Geraldine Ferraro's finances.
Debate finally occurred when the issue was taken up by the full Platform
Committee the following evening. Sen. Weicker was back, with several
possible amendments, but as in the subcommittee there was no prior
plan or co-ordinated effort to present specific substitutes or articulate
particular positions on an issue the Republican Party would prefer
not to discuss at all. Indeed on at least one proposal, the debate
was so subtle that only insiders knew that abortion was the topic.
During discussion of the section on "Jobs" Rep. Nancy Johnson
(Conn.) moved to delete the last two sentences from a paragraph on
foreign aid. The first criticized the World Bank and the second opposed
"U.S. funding for organizations involved in abortion." Only
the World Bank was debated, but the real importance on the second
was demonstrated by the first actual vote of the Platform Committee.
This time it was Marilyn Shannon of Oregon who moved to table. Although
she had not sat on the Family Subcommittee, she was Bunny Chambers'
roommate at the convention and sat next to her on the Committee. Both
are former Democrats and members of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum
who earned their political stripes fighting against the Equal Rights
Amendment during the late seventies. Chambers told Shannon "It's
your turn to make the motion." Johnson's proposal was tabled
by a vote of 36 to 30.
When the Platform Committee shifted to the Family section, everyone
waited to see who would make the first move. It came from an unexpected
quarter. Marjorie Bell Chambers of New Mexico, another "ringer"
unknown to the other moderates, strongly objected to the last four
words in the sentence "We believe the unborn child has a fundamental
individual right to life which cannot be infringed. She realized
that this particular phraseology elevated the life of the fetus above
that of the mother -- the most extreme position in the spectrum of
pro-life ideologies. Unlike Glaze, Chambers had not come to the convention
with the intention of making a statement. But as a former President
of the AAUW and chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women
after President Carter fired Bella Abzug, she knew a bad idea when
she saw one.
In the interim between the Johnson motion and Chambers', several Committee
members complained to Bush campaign operatives about the use of a
tabling motion to cut off debate and they instructed Shannon not to
do so again. Subsequently Platform Committee Chair Kay Orr, Governor
of Nebraska, told the Committee that she would not recognize any more
tabling motions. Consequently the debate over the Chambers (no relation
to Bunny) motion to delete the four words was a lengthy one after
which Chair Orr announced its defeat by a hand vote of 55 to 32. Two
independent counters said the vote was actually 45 to 35.
Whatever the actual count, observers interpreted the final vote as
reflecting the strength of Republican moderates even though the plank
voted on was on far edge of possible opinions about abortion. Since
only 27 signatures are necessary for a minority report which could
be debated on the floor of the convention, the votes on the Johnson
and Chambers motions fuled speculation about whether the moderates
would unite behind specific language and take the issue to the floor.
Thus by the time Senator Weicker finally made his own motion -- to
provide Medicaid funding for abortions resulting from rape, incest
or to save the life of the mother -- its defeat by a voice vote was
barely noticed. If there was going to be a floor fight it would be
over whether the life of the mother could ever take precedence over
that of the fetus.
The only time there was a floor debate at a Republican convention
over a feminist issue was in 1976 when Rep. Millicent Fenwick (NJ)
led a 2:00 am effort to remove all mention of abortion from the platform.
Efforts by anti-ERA delegates that year to obtain a minority report
removing the ERA from the Platform were discouraged by candidate Ronald
Reagan, even though the ERA had only received a bare majority in the
Platform Committee. In 1980 the Platform Committee voted down motions
for neutral recognition of the right to differ on abortion by 75 to
18 and on the ERA by 90 to 9. In 1984 there was nothing to debate.
Although both the Family Subcommittee and the full Platform committee
quickly voted down a motion to support the ERA made by Lynn Glaze,
the vote over abortion indicated that by 1988 many of the moderates
who had been run out of the party by the Reaganites were filtering
back in. What was not clear was whether the approximately one-third
of the 106-member Platform Committee were a reflection of the convention
A delegate poll by U.S.A. Today found that just as many delegates
to the 1988 convention called themselves conservative or very conservative
as in 1984. John Leopold, a delegate from Maryland who had led the
"neutral language" forces in 1980 as a delegate from Hawaii,
claimed that the discrepancy between the platform committee vote and
the delegate polls was spurious. He explained that many more moderates
became delegates in 1988 as part of Bush's victory, but they were
more likely to call themselves conservative because that was the most
politically safe label. He thought that many who had worked for Bush
in his 1980 race sat out 1984 but were back in 1988. On the other
hand, several moderates on the Platform Committee, including John
Easton of Vermont and Nancy Thompson of the District of Columbia,
said they had made a particular effort to get on that committee and
they were aware of others like them who had also done so, even though
there was no co-ordinated plan to stack the committee.
Thompson had led the Republican Women's Task Force of the NWPC at
the 1980 Republican convention. That year, as in 1976, the RWTF's
sole concern was keeping the ERA in the Republican Party Platform.
The RWTF did not want the two issues "to be confused" and
felt they had the resources only for one. The decision to stick with
the ERA reflected a delicate balancing act Republican feminists went
through in the seventies as the party was taken over by the right.
The party has always looked with suspicion on any kind of organized
interest group within it in much the same way that labor unions have
been hostile to anything approaching "dual unionism".
As feminism became identified with the Democratic Party, feminist
organizations, such as NOW and the NWPC, were denounced as Democratic
Party front groups. Because affiliation with the NWPC gave RWTF members
the image of disloyalty to the Republican Party, they sought autonomy
within the NWPC. When this proved unattainable, Thompson said, the
RWTF "became defunct." She explained the NWPC's absence
from the Platform hearings as an acknowledgement that it "has
become identified with the Democratic Party" despite its preference
for bipartisanship. "Irene Natividad felt her presence at the
GOP Platform Committee was not appropriate," Thompson said. "She
knew there were several people who would carry the water within the
These people operated as an informal network rather than through a
co-ordinated effort. Indeed the activities of Republican feminists
and other moderates at the Platform Committee closely resembled the
"structurelessness" favored by radical feminists when the
women's liberation movement began in the late sixties and early seventies.
There was no agreed on program and no one assumed leadership. Spontaneity
was the preferred mode of approach in promoting their positions. Rep.
Nancy Johnson said she had drawn up several pro-choice amendments
to different planks in the platform but shelved them when Chambers
made her motion.
Despite their willingness to speak out on abortion and some other
issues, the moderates were Republicans first and Bush supporters first
of all. A minority report on the Chambers proposal was drawn up but
withdrawn from circulation after only a few signatures were obtained
because Bush operatives made it clear that they didn't want any
minority reports or floor debates. Indeed, Marjorie Bell Chambers
told Bush's Western regional representative Tom Hardwick that she
wouldn't petition for a minority report before he could even ask her
not to. The petition that was briefly circulated was prepared by others
without her knowledge. Instead of a minority report, eleven moderates
held a press conference on the final day of platform deliberations
to express their pleasure at the completed document and their support
for George Bush. This is a "progressive platform" they said,
though abortion remained an issue on which they differed.
As Bush operatives made clear, the 1988 platform was essentially the
one that had been drafted by the right in 1984, though a few new planks
were added. The conventional wisdom was that the platform was Bush's
concession to the right to keep them in line for the campaign. The
fight over abortion was consistent with that interpretation. Bush
operatives said the Vice President was happy with the Platform even
though it differed from his own view. Bush's current position is that
exceptions to a ban on abortion should be made for rape, incest and
the life of the mother, and public funding should be provided for
Nonetheless, Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, the campaign's point-man
on the Platform Committee, tried to persuade reporters that the Committee
had been even handed in its handling of amendments. "We held
off both sides who wanted to change the language on abortion and stuck
with the '84 language," he said. "We fought it out then
and agreed on this language." When asked, John C. Wilke, President
of National Right to Life and Elaine Donally of Eagle Forum said they
were quite pleased with the draft that had been presented to the Subcommittee
and had not wanted any changes. Both organizations had representatives
present throughout the Platform debate and many supporters on the
dismissed the willingness of the Bush campaign to concede the platform
to the right as any indication of its power within the campaign. "The
Bush campaign is riddled with good women," she said. "While
there is no longer an organized Republican feminist group, there is
a network of good women." She felt these would be the people
who influenced a Bush administration on women's issues and not the
far right or Phyllis Schlafly.
Of all the planks in the Family section, the least controversial was
the one which in fact was the most revolutionary. The final draft
of the Platform devoted roughly two percent of its space to child
care. Although the topic had received brief mention in previous Platforms,
it was one of the few new issues in 1988. Recognition of the importance
of child care marked a significant departure from the past. In 1971
President Nixon vetoed a child care bill because of its "family
weakening implications." Ford and Carter also expressed disapproval
of bills in Congress during their Presidencies. Both the extent of
the testimony and the amount of attention to child care in the 1988
Platform indicate that it has finally been accepted as a legitimate
policy arena. The issue is no longer whether the government should
have any role in helping families care for their children, but what
Eagle Forum members Elaine Donally and Marilyn Thayer explained their
support for the child care plank with statistics. Labor force surveys
show that mothers of young children continue to pour into the labor
force, they said. It's no longer possible for mothers to stay home
with their children all the time; the alternative to child care is
latch key children. Rep. Nancy Johnson gave much the same answer when
asked why Sen. Orrin Hatch, not previously known for his support of
feminist issues, was a co-sponsor of her child care bill. The Hatch-Johnson
bill has been denounced by the Heritage Foundation as "violat[ing]
all the principles of a true pro-family policy."
As expected, the Platform's child care planks were not politically
neutral. Donally, a deposed Kemp delegate from Michigan who closely
monitored the Family Subcommittee proceedings for Schlafly, said the
"battle had been won before the committee meeting." The
Bush proposal of a "toddler tax credit" for "families
of modest means" was favored, and the Act for Better Child Care
bill currently before Congress that is sponsored by Democrats was
denounced as "a new federal program that negates parental choice
and disdains religious participation."
The impact of the women's movement could be seen throughout the section.
The Republican Party asked that "public policy ... acknowledge
the full range of family situations. Mothers or fathers who stay at
home ... should all receive the same respect.... "Parental care"
was deemed the best. The word "maternal" was not used. "Individual
empowerment" was lauded. Employers were encouraged to "use
more flexible work schedules and job sharing to recognize the household
demands upon their work force." All of this was passed without
debate. The one amendment, made in the Subcommittee by Bunny Chambers
at the request of Schlafly lieutenant Colleen Perro, was to add "Establishment
of a plan that does not discriminate against single-earner families
with one parent in the home."
The only new proposal by feminists that did make it into the platform
was an idea that originated with NOW, though no one on the Republican
Party Platform Committee was aware of that fact. When Nancy Thompson
proposed to the full Committee that "the Republican party strongly
supports the efforts of women to achieve parity in government, and
is committed to the vigorous recruitment, training and funding of
women candidates at all levels" she caught the Bush campaign
by surprise. Deborah Steelman, director of domestic policy for Bush,
decided to signal support, but not before there was an erratic debate
that fractured all other factional lines. No one wanted to be against
women candidates in a Committee that was almost half women, but parity
for women candidates supported by funding didn't sit well with
Thompson was determined to see the plank in the platform and wasn't
particular about its final form. She accepted every proposed amendment
as a friendly one. Consequently, "qualified" was inserted
before "women candidates" and then taken out when Angela
Buchanan of California, wife of conservative columnist Pat Buchanan,
argued that if "qualified" wasn't necessary for men to be
candidates, it certainly wasn't necessary for women. Marilyn Thayer
of Louisiana, who had chaired the Family Subcommittee without getting
involved in the abortion debate, repeatedly objected to "funding"
even after it was pointed out that the three national Republican committees
have been funding women candidates for years. Thompson agreed to replace
"funding" with "campaign support." "Parity"
was such an unRepublican word that even Rep. Nancy Johnson objected.
It was changed to "seeking an equal role."
Throughout the debate no one observed that it paralleled a new plank
in the Democratic Platform on "full and equal access of women
and minorities to elective office and party endorsement." This
plank had been the brainchild of Ellie Smeal, former NOW President
and founder of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. It had reached
the Republican Platform Committee by a circuitous route. The Women's
Campaign Fund gave it to Rep. Nancy Johnson's office in Washington
with a request that she sponsor it. Johnson, a recipient of campaign
assistance from the WCF when she first ran in 1982, was receptive,
but didn't want to add another item to her own Platform Committee
agenda. She asked Thompson to make the motion. Thompson was already
aware of the proposal as a member of the WCF Board. She didn't think
she was the best person to push it but couldn't find anyone else.
The final, amended, version, was passed by an overwhelming voice vote.
Needless to say Smeal was not present to see her idea incorporated
into the Republican Platform. But she did come to New Orleans on Sunday
for a march through the French Quarter sponsored by NOW and several
other women's groups. NOW had sponsored marches at the 1976 and 1980
Republican conventions, but had not organized one in 1984. The New
Orleans march compensated in color for what it lacked in numbers.
Only about a hundred women were willing to brave the oppressive heat
to ride in or walk around several mule-drawn carriages and one renovated
streetcar. In keeping with Mardi Graw style, Smeal, current NOW President
Molly Yard and other feminists threw doubloons, cups and plastic necklaces
to the thin line of onlookers on the march's route. The Joan of Arc
Statue outside the building where the Platform Committee had met the
week before was the obvious place for the concluding rally, but the
only Republican office holder who spoke was Rep. Bill Green of New
York. However, Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa and Claudine Schneider of Rhode
Island were also present.
Monday was Phyllis Schlafly's quadrennial affair. This time her convention
fundraiser featured a reception at the New Orleans Art Museum honoring
five conservative notables. Jeane Kirkpatrick, author of Political
Woman and runner-up for a 1975 prize given by the American Political
Science Association for the best scholarly work on women and politics,
was the only woman so honored. Approximately 500 people paid $55 each
to hear Kirkpatrick and the other honorees thank the Eagle Forum for
its leadership. Outside the Museum gay groups held a vigil.
On Tuesday, feminist organizations resumed their assault on the Republican
Platform with a press conference by Faye Wattleton, President of Planned
Parenthood and Kate Michelman, Executive Director of NARAL, denouncing
it as "anti-woman" and "out of sync with the American
people." Michelman said latter that the Republican Party had
"shot themselves in the foot" with their extreme anti-abortion
language. "A year and a half ago reporters said this was a dead
issue," she said, "but over the weekend every major public
affairs program on TV gave time to abortion." "As a result
of the extremism of the party's platform, it has become a salient
That afternoon the NWPC brought several Republican notables to the
headquarters hotel to tell about two hundred non-delegates that feminists
do have a place in the Republican party, despite all appearances
to the contrary. Even though Bush appears to have pandered to the
party's right wing on the Platform, he knows he must appeal to women.
Pollster Linda DiVall said the way to do this is through "family
issues such as day care, education and health."
Feminist Republicans believe the party's biggest problem is the gender
gap -- women's preference for voting Democratic -- and that it would
be closed if Bush would support women's issues. However, surveys indicate
that the issues which are most salient for women compared to men are
traditional Democratic issues, such as day care, education and health.
The economic and foreign policy issues which differentiate Republicans
and Democrats don't appear to have much of an impact on how women
vote. Even abortion does not command the same allegiance of women
as public spending for social programs, though pro-choicers are somewhat
more likely to be Democrats.
Since the Republican Party has ceded sovereignty over social issues
to conservatives, it does not know how to woo the women's vote. Instead
it denies there is a problem. In the convention issue of Republican
Woman, National Federation of Republican Women President Judy
Hughes called "this illusion a 'media gap'." Founded in
1937, the NFRW claims over 140,000 members. In 1956 it endorsed the
ERA. In 1967 Phyllis Schlafly was defeated for NFRW President by a
challenger hand-picked by the Republican establishment. While NFRW
President, Gladys O'Donnell became an ardent ERA activist who persuaded
the RNC to endorse the ERA in 1971. The NFRW no longer endorses issues.
Denial also marked the party's response to queries about the number
of women delegates, and why there were fewer than in 1984. A week
before the convention started the NFRW released figures showing that
only 28 percent of the delegates were female. Neither Judy Hughes
nor any other convention spokesperson would comment on the fall-off
from the 48 percent claimed in 1984. A few days later a fact sheet
released by the Media Operations Center stated that women were 40
percent of all delegates and alternates. This release, based on an
RNC survey with an 80 percent response rate, was not publicly displayed
with the other press releases. It was kept in a file and given out
only on request -- until the small print run ran out a few days later.
Rob Fairbank, an RNC delegate tracker, provided raw numbers in a phone
interview. These indicated that 36.4 of the delegates and 44.2 percent
of the alternates were women. Traditionally, women have been more
likely to attend the convention as alternates than as delegates, but
this was obscured by the numbers in the RNC fact sheet kept in the
Media Operations Center file. When asked about the drop off from 1984,
Fairbank replied that that survey only had a 40 percent response rate
and thus was not comparable to one with an 80 percent response rate.
He also claimed that the earlier figures provided by the NFRW were
based on their own survey and also not comparable to the RNC's.
Delegate surveys by the Los Angeles Times with a 97 percent
response rate and CBS news with a 99 percent response rate found that
33 to 34 percent of the 1988 Republican delegates were women. A New
York Times survey of 739 delegates selected at random indicated
37 percent were women. The Times quoted RNC Chair Frank J.
Fahrenkopf as saying that when the nomination was uncontested in 1984
the party pushed for women delegates. With a contested nomination
in 1988, this was not done. In the 1972, 1976 and 1980 conventions
between 29 and 31 percent of the delegates were women.
Unlike the Democrats, the Republican Party has no requirements for
representation by sex, race etc. to its quadrennial convention. Indeed
the 1988 platform counsels against "discriminatory quota systems
and preferential treatment." It states that "quotas are
the most insidious form of reverse discrimination against the innocent."
Nonetheless, the rules of the Republican Party have traditionally
provided for sex quotas in party and convention committees, though
these provisions have been occasionally been eroded.
In 1924, the Republican National Committee was expanded to include
one man and one woman from each state. In 1952, over the vocal opposition
of women delegates to that convention, state chairmen were made automatic
RNC members. Virtually all state chairs are men. In 1944 the Platform
Committee was expanded to include one man and one woman from each
state. In 1960 this requirement was extended to the three other convention
committees. However, the states were only permitted, not required,
to send two people of the opposite sex. Since all committee members
had to be delegates, if a state had insufficient women delegates to
fill all four committee slots, they remained vacant.
Currently, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico can also send
one man and one woman to each committee, but the Virgin Islands and
Guam can only send one person. The 1988 Rules Committee added one
delegate from American Samoa. The rules also provide that the RNC
have "a chairman and a co-chairman of the opposite sex"
and eight "vice chairmen, comprising one man and one woman"
from each of four regions. At least four of the eleven members of
the RNC Chairmen's Executive Council must be women.
Women have been named as co-chairmen of the different committees and
subcommittees though their equal representation in these leadership
positions was often more illusory than real. This practice has recently
been expanded to provide a larger number of titles to committee members.
In 1988, Platform Chairman Kay Orr had two (male) co-chairmen and
one (male) vice-chairman. They sat on the dias with her though she
chaired most of the Platform Committee meetings. The seven subcommittees
also had co-chairmen. Four subcommittees had female chairmen, and
one of these also had a female co-chairman. The other three had male
chairmen, one with a female co-chairmen, one with a male, and one
with one of each sex. "Chairman" is the preferred Republican
title. Only the Democratic Party has chairwomen or chairpersons.