Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Marjorie J. Spruill's "Divided We Stand"

Marjorie J. Spruill is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. Her books include New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States and (editor) One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.

Spruill applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, and reported the following:
From page 99 in the chapter “An Alternative to ‘Women’s Lib’”:
Women in the movement to stop the ERA were especially proud of the leading role women elected officials such as Arizona’s Donna Carlson, Utah’s Georgia Peterson, Virginia’s Eva Scott, and other “First Ladies of the Legislatures” that Schlafly celebrated in the Phyllis Schlafly Report played in the amendment’s defeat. Ann McGraw later described the way the women of the anti-ERA movement felt about one another: “We established a nation-wide network of women who knew one another and we fed on each other, talking on the phone, reassuring one another, and meeting once a year…reviving our minds and hearts for the tasks to come.” Ironically, for those who may have felt bored or isolated, the campaign to stop the ERA provided excitement and companionship, as well as an acceptable reason to escape temporarily the homes from which they did not wish to be driven.

Through their political activism many discovered unknown talents and new purpose in their lives that they attributed not only to Phyllis Schlafly but also to God. Dianne Edmondson said she gradually realized that her “normal inability to remember dates and names was miraculously transformed as the good Lord knew that when I spoke, I’d have to be able to quote those court decisions and legal authorities!” Another follower, Barbara Dolan Atherton, thanking Schlafly said, “Shy by nature, I became bolder and more effective because of God’s Word and your example.”

As Illinois chairman of Stop-ERA, Rosemary Thomson, found a new calling as a writer as well as a speaker. She was surprised to find herself “a humble homemaker,” called by the Lord “to be an ambassador for him in the political arena.” An article she had written for an evangelical family magazine became so popular that thousands of requests for it flooded in, leading her to get it copyrighted as “A Christian View of ERA.” Along with Schlafly’s “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” and Hobbs’s “Pink Sheet,” it was one of the best known statements of the arguments against the amendment. According to Thomson, it was used in nearly every state, with a total “perhaps in the hundreds of thousands.” In her view, she and others were simply telling the truth to their fellow Americans, confident they would reject the ERA if only they understood what was at stake.
Page 99 is representative of half of the story told in the book. It conveys the sense of elation and sisterhood of women involved in the battle to stop ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although Phyllis Schlafly and other experienced activists led the anti-ERA movement, most foot soldiers in the battle were Christian conservatives with little or no experience in politics. Though political novices, they were particularly valuable allies as they were already organized and could be readily mobilized.

These women were also highly motivated and confident of success even though Congress had voted overwhelmingly for the ERA and many states had rushed to ratify. They were convinced that God was on their side in a battle against godless feminists who were undermining the traditional family. They believed that equal access to jobs for women would threaten husbands’ livelihood, forcing wives to work outside the home, and that more women in the workplace would lead to more divorces even as feminists’ egalitarian reforms made it harder for homemakers to be awarded alimony, custody of their children, and child support. Ironically, conservative women found their public voice and political clout by fighting against the women’s rights movement that was for women having more social, economic, and political power.

Conversely, page 99 is not representative in the sense that it is totally focused on conservatives when the book is about two women’s movements of the 1970s. Previous chapters discuss women’s rights advocates who enjoyed considerable success with the aid of both Democrats and Republicans -- before conservative women organized in opposition and convinced many politicians that they were the women most important to please. However, as conservative women mobilized and united religious conservatives – the precursor of the Religious Right – and New Right politicians recognized the potential power of women and women’s issues to galvanize conservatives, things changed. In 1980, while the Democrats continued to support feminist goals, the GOP abandoned it support of the ERA and cast itself as the defender of “family values.”

The tone of page 99 is representative of that of the book. Though my identification with the women’s rights movement no doubt comes through, I seek to describe fairly and accurately both of these antagonistic but mutually influential movements and how the competition between them over federal policy led to the polarization and increasingly bitter partisanship that became a dominant feature in national politics after 1980.
Learn more about Divided We Stand at the Bloomsbury USA website.

--Marshal Zeringue