Return to Book Reviews

Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right

by Catherine E. Rymph. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
2006, xi, 338 pp.

A review by Jo Freeman published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 104, No. 1, Winter 2006, pp. 194-196.

Republican Women examines the culture war within the Republican Party – a war fought in the larger society in the late Twentieth Century, but which was portended and was particularly tense within the Grand Old Party. The forces of social conservatism won this war. They replaced the mild “equal rights” feminism that was the Republican Party’s heritage from its origins as the party of progress and reform with a virulent anti-feminism. Emphasizing the decades between 1920 and 1980, Rymph tries to explain why it happened.

Women worked in the Republican Party in the Nineteenth Century but after equal suffrage came in 1920 party women made a special effort “to create a partisan Republican culture welcoming to women” (55) The primary vehicle for this was the Republican Women’s Club. Women, especially middle-class women, had been forming women’s clubs of various types for several decades. While most were not partisan, it was a familiar environment. Women’s Republican Clubs drew on existing social networks so that becoming active in a Republican Club became an extension of a women’s normal social life. They also attracted women by framing politics “as an urgent crusade of good against evil.” (57) This played on women’s sense of moral superiority to persuade them not to leave politics to men.

The number of women’s Republican Clubs grew even after the party’s national defeat in 1932, but their relationship to the party varied considerably. Some were tied into the local party structure, some were completely independent, some even worked for candidates not endorsed by the party. Separate clubs for black and white women often meant they had different agendas as well as a different membership. Clubs met in regional conferences and even sent delegates to national meetings, but often went their own way and pursued their own agendas. In 1937, as part of his strategy to rebuild a devastated party, the new RNC chairman decided to turn local Republican women into loyal Republican workers. To do this he appointed Maine National Committeewoman Marion Martin as his assistant for women’s activities. She founded the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs (NFWRC) and over the next few years brought most Republican women’s clubs under its umbrella. As an employee of the RNC, head of its Women’s Division, and executive director of the NFWRC, Martin “was intent on creating a women’s political machine.” (72) While encouraging education about politics, she discouraged independence. She wanted women to be articulate exponents of Republican philosophy and policies to their communities, not sources of dissension inside the party. Her Republican women would always put the good of the party first; they did not discuss or lobby on issues on which there was friction within the party. For example, “colored” women’s Republican clubs were welcome to join the federation, but state federations were free to exclude them. Martin thought work without complaint or controversy was the way to gain respect within Republican circles, and that eventually the men would reward women’s hard work.

After the Republicans won both Houses of Congress in 1946, Martin was fired for political reasons. Her creation took advantage of this to cut some of the apron strings to the RNC. While still supported financially, in the next few years the NFWRC separated from the RNC’s Women’s Division, put its own elected President as CEO in place of an executive director paid and beholden to the RNC, changed its name to the National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW), and concentrated on raising more of its own funds. It also expanded its base by appealing to new constituencies, primarily by returning to “the themes of a separate female politics and of women’s moral superiority that Martin had sought to relegate to the past.” (99) In the 1950s NFRW membership reached around half a million. Many of these new members had started in politics as right-wing activists – damning the New Deal as socialistic, opposing entry into World War II, denouncing international organizations such as the UN, seeing Communists in every government agency and behind everything they did not like. They shifted the NFRW in a decidedly conservative direction.

A small book written and self-published by NFRW activist Phyllis Schlafly helped conservatives capture the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater. It also gave her the prominence to become First Vice President of the NFRW. When regulars sought to recapture all Republican bodies after Goldwater’s devastating defeat, they thwarted Schlafly’s campaign to become its next President. She left the NFRW, taking many committed Republican women with her. Instead of creating an alternative organization to the NFRW she started a monthly newsletter to give her followers her opinions on the issues of the day. Before 1972 her primary concerns had been foreign policy and national defense. Her readers’ response to the Congressional debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970-1972 turned her attention to feminist concerns. The Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions on January 23, 1973 added even more potent fuel. Phyllis Schlafly, who had never had any personal interest in women’s rights, and wanted Republican women to have their own agenda independent of the dictates of male party leaders (186), became the chief spokeswoman for the conservative opposition to anything supported by feminists.

A different group of Republican women were motivated to join feminist causes and form feminist organizations. Many were active at different levels of the party, or in the NFRW; some were elected officials, political appointees or staff. These women put the ERA back into the Republican Platform in 1972, as well as pushed the party to put women into more decision making positions. One of them was Mary Louise Smith, who was chosen by President Ford in 1974 to be the first and only woman to chair the Republican National Committee. These women had influence because of their connections with party elites, particularly in the more moderate wing of the party. When Ronald Reagan became President, they were marginalized, and that’s where they stayed. By 1992 Smith could not even be elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention from her home state of Iowa.

Conservatives won the culture war within the Republican Party, with the help of Schlafly’s Republican women. These women then used their clout within the party to expand their work beyond that of worker bees. They not only wrote the key planks in the Platform, but set the standards for many Republican candidates. By organizing against everything feminist, conservative Republican women gained the power inside their party that feminists wanted women to have.