Diana Mara HenryFirst Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, and Betty Ford, International Women’s Year presiding officer Bella Abzug, and Torch of Freedom relay runners at the opening ceremonies of the National Women’s Conference, Houston, November 1977

In the summer of 1968, George Wallace, in between terms as governor of Alabama, concluded that endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment for women would help his third-party presidential campaign. He declared his support in a telegram to Alice Paul, the head of the National Women’s Party, who had cowritten the first draft of the amendment in 1923 and had been campaigning for it for forty-five years. The pro-segregationist Wallace was hardly alone among conservative politicians in his position. Strom Thurmond, a Republican senator from South Carolina, likewise supported the amendment, saying in 1972 that it “represents the just desire of many women in our pluralistic society to be allowed a full and free participation in the American way of life.”

In fact, the Republican platform had supported the Equal Rights Amendment as far back as 1940; opposition had come mainly from pro-labor Democrats, who feared that equal treatment for men and women would mean an end to legislation that protected women from dangerous jobs. Labor opposition waned as the increasingly active feminist movement—frustrated that the Supreme Court had never interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee to apply to discrimination on the basis of sex—made passing the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority. In 1971 the House approved the 1

Jane J. Mansbridge’s Why We Lost the ERA (1986), written in the immediate aftermath of the events it describes by a political scientist who was part of the pro-ERA effort, argues that “much of the support for the Amendment was superficial, because it was based on a support for abstract rights, not for real changes.” Mansbridge’s account holds up surprisingly well. She contrasts a painfully factionalized pro-ERA campaign, riven by debates over what priority to attach to abortion and gay rights, with the rigidly organized and spectacularly successful STOP ERA movement (STOP was an acronym for “stop taking our privileges”) led by Phyllis Schlafly, who persuaded her followers—largely conservative and religious women—that their very way of life was at stake.

Of course, that way of life was disappearing rapidly—as a result not of feminism but of household necessity during the economically stagnant 1970s. As the traditional family structure, with the male breadwinner at its head, became an unaffordable luxury, women entered the paid workforce in great numbers. Yet for many women as well as men, a traditional family remained the ideal, even as it receded from possibility.

This disjunction is at the heart of the historian Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (2012). Self depicts a rich history of struggle over the war in Vietnam, gay rights, and religious values, as well as a conflagration over gender roles prompted by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year celebrations—which actually lasted for three years, from 1975 through 1977. Self understands the period primarily from an economic perspective. Those he labels “breadwinner conservatives” were acutely aware of the changing nature of the family, he writes, “yet chose to understand it ideologically, as a result of feminism, rather than sociologically, as a result of economic change. That analysis led not to proposals to assist women in managing the double day but to the launching of a jeremiad against feminism.” Self observes further that “it was not feminists’ analysis of American society that fell short,” but rather their failure “to manage the political narrative of the ‘crisis of the family.’”

Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand is the most recent effort to probe the feminist/antifeminist struggle of the 1970s for what it might tell us about today’s polarized America. It’s an ambitious book, built around a close study of an event that Self treats in only a few pages and Mansbridge in a single passing reference: the congressionally mandated, federally funded National Women’s Conference that took place in Houston in November 1977. The conference was organized by the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, set up by the Ford administration in 1975 to coordinate American participation in the United Nations–sponsored Decade for Women. From May to July 1977, some 130,000 people—all but a few hundred of them women—took part in state-level meetings to select delegates and debate the conference’s agenda. The idea was to come up with a “plan of action” for the national delegates to adopt and present to the White House and Congress.

The path to this goal was intensely contested, with a number of the state conventions becoming ideological battlegrounds over issues like federally funded child care, gay rights, and abortion. Two thousand delegates and nearly 20,000 observers eventually attended the official conference in Houston, while a similar number gathered across town in a conservative counter-convention organized by Schlafly. Both sides emerged highly mobilized and ready for continued battle.

The events of 1977 are often portrayed merely as one episode in a decade of feminist conflicts, gains, and setbacks. Spruill, a historian of southern and women’s history at the University of South Carolina, makes the rather stronger claim that the competing conferences “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.” Whereas in the early 1970s Democrats and Republicans had, in Spruill’s view, “both…supported feminist goals,” the events of 1977 created two polarized and increasingly partisan camps. The plan of action that emerged from the official convention in the end included support for the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. It called for equal access to credit, which banks routinely denied to married women on the premise that the husband was in control of the family finances. One plank called for reform “based on the principle that marriage is a partnership in which the contribution of each spouse is of equal importance and value.” The counter-conference was dominated by Christian and anti-abortion delegates united under a “pro-family” banner. Spruill notes that the official delegates were so “caught up in their own conference experience” that they had “little sense” of how equally empowering the Houston weekend had proved to be to the other side.

It’s hard to make the case that 1977 was solely, or even primarily, responsible for setting in motion the struggles that left us with a “pro-family” Republican Party and a Democratic Party committed, at least on paper, to a women’s rights agenda. As George Wallace’s flip-flop five years earlier demonstrates, the ERA was already toxic, if somewhat belatedly, to social conservatives, and the battle over family values was already in full cry. Spruill herself refers to Richard Nixon’s 1971 veto of a bill that would have established a network of federally funded child care centers. Nixon’s veto message, written by Patrick Buchanan, denounced the bill as a “long leap into the dark” that promised to commit “the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal modes of child-rearing against the family-centered approach.”

Nonetheless, Spruill’s project of historical reclamation is an important one. While the National Women’s Conference and the competing Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally did not quite amount to “Four Days That Changed the World” (as it was described in a Ms. magazine headline the following March), they were signal events that drew thousands of women into political engagement and offered clearly defined—if opposing—arguments in which these new activists could discover sympathies. Gloria Steinem may well have been right in a recent interview to call the National Women’s Conference “the most important event nobody knows about.”

The National Women’s Conference, almost counterintuitively from today’s perspective, had the full blessing of the political and intellectual establishment. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, then seventy-five years old, told the delegates that “this conference may well be the turning point, not only in the history of the women’s movement, but in the history of the world itself.” First Lady Rosalynn Carter was in attendance, along with one Democratic and one Republican predecessor, Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford; the trio was formally welcomed by the mayor of Houston. The event’s over-the-top theatricality was epitomized by a six-week-long torch relay that began in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women’s rights convention had been held in 1848, and concluded in Houston. The final lap was covered on network television. Maya Angelou wrote a declaration for the occasion, which was printed on a scroll that the torchbearers carried. As Spruill describes the scene:

There was a tremendous response as the three young women runners—white, black, and Latina—delivered the torch and Maya Angelou’s poem to the three First Ladies as an all-female bugle corps dressed in golden Amazon helmets saluted them.

Who could possibly forget that? But we have.

Spruill offers intriguing glimpses of a young Ann Richards, a self-regarding Betty Friedan, and a deeply ambivalent President Jimmy Carter, who inherited the project from President Gerald Ford and watched it warily from the White House. After receiving the National Plan of Action in a formal ceremony, Carter set up a forty-member National Advisory Committee for Women but kept it at arm’s length. The new committee’s members, many of whom had been leaders at the Houston conference, grew impatient when the president did not make the conference’s action items a legislative priority. For his part, Carter was trying to navigate between liberal and conservative forces within the Democratic Party without alienating the social conservatives who had been among his earliest supporters. When the women went public with their dissatisfaction, Carter reacted angrily by firing the group’s leader, Bella Abzug, the legendary former Democratic congresswoman from New York who, as Carter’s appointee, had been the presiding officer in Houston.

Phyllis Schlafly
Phyllis Schlafly; drawing by David Levine

Notwithstanding the many colorful personalities at the official conference, the star of this account is indisputably Phyllis Schlafly, whom Spruill credits with awakening, molding, and mobilizing America’s churchgoing housewives into a powerful political force. While the leadership of the feminist side was diffuse and not infrequently in conflict, on the anti-2 many religious denominations felt obliged to take a formal position on abortion as momentum grew in the early 1970s for reform of the nineteenth-century laws that made it a crime in every state. Surprisingly, even conservative groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention took positions in favor of limited reform. Only the Catholic Church remained opposed to any modification of the old criminal laws, and it was becoming increasingly active in state-level politics to defend its position.

The ERA’s early supporters, most but not all of whom supported abortion reform, worried that abortion might derail the amendment and went out of their way to insist it would not change the abortion status quo. Schlafly—a nonpracticing lawyer—would have none of it. During the months before the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), she warned her followers that the ERA would not only destroy the traditional family but would bring about “abortion on demand” and, for good measure, same-sex marriage as well. This multipronged threat became a rallying point for cultural conservatives for whom, as Spruill puts it, “the sense of working for a righteous cause was empowering.” The anti-ERA effort was infused with religious language and imagery. Among anti-ERA activists, 98 percent identified as church members, compared with fewer than half of active ERA supporters.

Spruill appears to have interviewed every participant in the International Women’s Year events who was still alive during the years she spent on the project. Her exhaustive research, with more than a thousand footnotes, displays the vice of its virtue. She seems to have felt obliged to quote everyone she interviewed, even when it adds little to the documentary record or proves less than illuminating, as in the case of her 2009 interview with Jimmy Carter, whose conflicted involvement with the feminist leadership provides an interesting side plot. (Although many feminists said that he did not do enough for the ERA, Carter believed he “had done all that he could.”) Still, the nearly overwhelming detail and the abundant presence of distinctly subordinate players make Divided We Stand an invaluable, if at times barely readable, reference book.

There is an alternative, or at least supplemental, reading of what happened in Houston forty years ago that Spruill, committed to her thesis that the competing conferences led to today’s cultural and political polarization, seems not to see. A convergence of sorts emerged from the effort to bring women to Houston to rally for their separate causes. Both sides spoke past each other, to be sure, but whether they knew it or not, they also, in their different ways, were speaking the language of women’s rights: at a fundamental level, each side recognized a woman’s right to leave home, travel to a distant city, and stand up for what she believed to be in the best interest of her sex. By definition this was a claim, even if unacknowledged, to equal access to power, to equality in form if not in name.

Spruill quotes many pro-ERA activists who describe the National Women’s Convention as transformative. Yet they were not the only ones transformed by Houston or the events of the mid-1970s. Jane Mansbridge, in her thirty-year-old account of “why we lost the ERA,” suggests this:

When the ERA was in the newspaper, when a co-worker went to an ERA demonstration, or when advocates debated the ERA in the school gym, women who normally thought little about these issues seem to have begun to ask themselves about the amount of housework they were doing, about their pay, and about what kind of person they wanted to be.

The result, Mansbridge concluded, “was both creeping feminism and creeping antifeminism,” a complex picture of change and resistance, centered on a profound debate over what kinds of social arrangements are in women’s best interests.

This process has an ironic echo in today’s abortion debate. As pictures of fetuses held aloft at demonstrations failed to gain sufficient traction, anti-abortion strategists appropriated the language of women’s liberation and began to place the pregnant woman herself at the center of their moral claim for restricting access to abortion. In 2013, the Texas legislature cynically invoked women’s health as the justification for imposing onerous and medically unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics that would predictably close most of them. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), the Supreme Court overturned the law, finding that by destroying the state’s abortion infrastructure, the regulations would actually hurt women rather than help them. While it was a crucially important decision, few would be so naive as to consider it an end to the debate over how to serve women’s welfare, whether in regard to abortion or anything else, within the Supreme Court or outside it.

Spruill ends her book with Donald Trump’s election: “It was clear that the polarization of American politics had reached a new and ominous level and that the nation was more divided than ever.” November 8, 2016, was one day that indisputably “shook the world.” Whether its origins can be found in the “four days that changed the world” in Houston is open to debate. But the value of reconstructing those days and pondering their meaning for the light they might shed on ours is unquestionable.

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