Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Book Review: Divided We Stand (Marjorie Spruill)

In the wake of the 2016 election, I would add Marjorie Spruill's Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values that Polarizing American Politics to any list of recommended "how we got to here" books. That is to say, I don't think we can accurately understand why 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump without acknowledging the unique way the white-dominated, Christian conservative anti-feminist/"pro-family" movement in the United States is linked to the Republican Party.

Spruill centers her analysis of the feminist/anti-feminist divide around the years leading up to the National Women's Conference in 1977, laying out the case that this event, and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), mobilized both feminist and anti-feminist activists in ways that still ripple through today's political landscape and shape both major political parties.

On the feminist side, the book follows feminists active in the ERA movement and the Women's Conference, particularly Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Maxine Waters. A primary frustration of the feminists, was not just anti-feminist organizing to thwart their goals, but that the government's sponsorship of the Conference led those on both the left and the right to charge that the women's movement was "establishment" even though the reality was that women were poorly represented in nearly ever facet of what is considered "establishment."

Speaking of ripples, during the 2016 Democratic Primary, Bernie Sanders called Planned Parenthood and the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign part of the "establishment" that he was taking on, because they endorsed Hillary Clinton, over him. That, even as Republicans continue a ceaseless war on reproductive autonomy and LGBT rights. A lesson here is that while mainstream political analysis often fixates on battles between the left v. the right, in some ways, feminism fits awkwardly into this dichotomy. There are factions on on both ends of the political spectrum that consistently portray feminists, and to a lesser extent women in general, as both enormously powerful and not worth taking seriously. This is not a new phenomenon. Second-wave feminists have written extensively about it, but it seems each successive generation of feminists is destined to re-live the dynamic.

Nonetheless, an important outcome of the Conference was the adoption of a National Plan of Action on topics such as business, child care, employment, health insurance, criminal justice, and rape. It also mobilized the anti-feminist right.

On the anti-feminist right, much of the focus of the book is on the organizing, influence, and efforts of Phyllis Schlafly and, in particular, the way she was able to unite Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons against feminism by emphasizing their common beliefs about gender and family. Spruill writes:
"Religion was at the core of the anti-ERA movement. Though it was not as clear to observers in the 1970s as it was later to scholars, active participation in churches was the greatest common denominator among ERA opponents and a far greater indicator than class or levels of education."
The trifecta of moral and economic issues around which the anti-feminist movement rallied white Christian conservatives was abortion, the ERA, and homosexuality, all tinged with racism and white resentment toward the Women's Conference's deliberate inclusion of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity among its organizers and delegates.

Prior to her death in 2016, I'd been following Schlafly, and the more general "pro-family" movement, for the entirety of this blog's existence. So, 10 years. The seeming-obsession with gays and lesbians that's documented in this book was therefore not a surprise to me. At the same time, some of the pearl-clutching somehow reads as both quaint and obviously-bigoted. Sample:
  • Schlafly's response when conservatives weren't able to elect as many delegates to the convention as they wanted: "[The conservatives would have] done better but our women didn't want to leave their families for an entire weekend and spend it with a group of lesbians. They're very offensive to all of us."
  • "Conservatives claimed that a bus with New York plates was bringing in male homosexuals to pack the convention. The astonished driver, however, explained to the press that he was transporting swimmers to compete in a meet at the Brown University pool."
  • Another anti-feminist's description of the convention: "There were about 2,000 lesbians in attendance, wearing all kinds of lesbian T-shirts and signs such as: 'How dare you presume I am heterosexual?' 'Lesbians fight for our friends.' 'Anita sucks organs.' 'Warm Fuzzy Dykes.'" and so forth.
During the Convention, Schlafly led an anti-feminist counter-rally, consisting primarily of white Christians, male and female, denouncing the recommendations of feminists. Further, in some southern states, the KKK influenced the state meetings in which the delegates to the Convention were chosen and promised to be at the Convention to protect "their women" from the lesbians.

(Helpful Hint to White Supremacist Women: Don't worry, I find you very resistable).

As Spruill tells it, this counter-rally "signaled the advent of a unifiying movement that joined single-issue conservative campaigns related to abortion, the ERA, child care, education, and gay rights into a common defense of the traditional family." And, further, as Republicans saw how these issues could be leveraged for political gain, more moderate Republicans both watched in frustration as their party was hijacked by extremists while they also stood by and did nothing to stop it. A New Gingrich campaign staffer described the new Republican strategy of gaining southern voters:
"We went after every rural southern prejudice we could think of."
My two mild critiques of Spruill's book is that I believe she too-generously cedes the label "pro-family" to conservatives, throughout the book, perhaps wanting to appear neutral. Yet, as she documents, the "pro-family" right primarily worked to carve out a special status for white heteronormative married families, while opposing policies and government support that would help all other types of families.

Two, more information or context about the anti-feminists' motivations to vote against their interests as women would have been interesting. Spruill suggests that anti-feminist women were more than "pawns of men eager to legitimize their own opposition to feminism," but in my opinion doesn't truly explain how or why. (Andrea Dworkin, of course, wrote Right-Wing Women in part based on her experience with anti-feminists during this era, but it would be interesting to examin the extent to which Dworkin's analysis holds up today.)

Nonetheless, I see this book is a valuable contribution to understanding today's political climate.

Melissa McEwan has noted that Donald Trump is not an anomalous Republican politician, but an inevitable one that has exposed the rot at the core of a Republican Party that both shelters, condones, and tolerates bigotry. I have previously observed that with 81% of white Evangelical voters choosing Trump in the 2016 election, he is their Conservative Christian Cultural Warrior. The white women who voted for Trump are likely to be, primarily, the political descendants of Phyllis Schlafly. That is, the women of the right who oppose the moral trifecta of abortion, LGBT rights, and feminism.

Yet, with many election post-mortems focusing on the purported "economic anxiety" of whites who voted for Trump, and the mainstream media remaining fascinating by angry white male "populists," the Christian anti-feminist angle is largely lost. In the quest to trash Democrats and remake the party around angry white people, some on the left, and in particular the Sanders left, seem perplexed (at best) and ignorant (at worst) of the way Republicans have mobilized white Christian opposition to abortion, feminism, and LGBT rights for the past 40 years for political gain.

In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly's anti-feminism "liberated" male politicians from having to cater to feminist demands, because they saw that anti-feminist women were also opposing these demands. As Spruill tells it, Schlafly's last parting "gift" to feminists, before her death in 2016, was her endorsement of Donald Trump. Schlafly's endorsement sent a clear signal to the Christian right that one could be a "virtuous" woman and still support the abusive, misogynistic, racist, and unqualified sexual predator.

Democrats, we ignore this history at our peril.

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