Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Review: Divided We Stand and the National Women's Conference of 1977

This book is sitting near the top of my pile of books-to-read

Linda Greenhouse, Who Killed the ERA?, NYT Book Review, reviewing:

Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, by Marjorie J. Spruill

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.

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.”

There is another book review of the book by Gillian Thomas posted here.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2017/10/book-review-divided-we-stand-and-the-national-womens-conference-of-1977-.html

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