Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Gillian Thomas, NYT, "Four Days That Changed the World": Unintended Consequences of a Woman's Rights Conference, reviewing:
Marjorie Spruill, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values
To answer these riddles requires understanding how we got here, and Marjorie J. Spruill’s “Divided We Stand” offers a detailed if sometimes dense primer. Spruill, a professor of women’s, Southern and modern American history at the University of South Carolina, convincingly traces today’s schisms to events surrounding the National Women’s Conference, a four-day gathering in Houston in November 1977. At the time, Ms. magazine called the event — a federally funded initiative to identify a national women’s rights agenda — “Four Days That Changed the World.” So why is it that today, as Gloria Steinem recently observed, the conference “may take the prize as the most important event nobody knows about”?
In Spruill’s telling, the Houston conference was world-changing, but not entirely for the reasons the organizers had hoped. The event drew an estimated 20,000 activists, celebrities and other luminaries for a raucous political-convention-cum-consciousness-raising session. The delegates enacted 26 policy resolutions calling not just for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (then just three states shy of the 38 needed) but a wide range of measures including accessible child care, elimination of discriminatory insurance and credit practices, reform of divorce and rape laws, federal funding for abortion and — most controversially — civil rights for lesbians. Those “planks” later were bundled as a National Plan of Action and presented to President Jimmy Carter, amid much fanfare, in a report entitled “The Spirit of Houston.”
The conference had an unintended, equally revolutionary consequence, though: the unleashing of a women-led “family values” coalition that cast feminism not just as erroneous policy but as moral transgression. Led by Phyllis Schlafly, a small but savvy coalition of foot soldiers mobilized against the conference’s aims. These activists found common cause in their deep religiosity and opposition to feminism’s perceived diminishment of “real” womanhood. And although their leadership denied it, the group also had ties to white supremacists. “Divided We Stand” argues that the potency of these advocates and their successors reshaped not just the nation’s gender politics, but the politics of the Democratic and Republican Parties as well.