One loyal Republican woman whose political engagement began during this relatively enlightened time was Tanya Melich, the daughter of a state senator in ultraconservative Utah. Melich, who had passed out leaflets for Wendell Willkie as a child in the forties, had grown up to be a stalwart New York Republican and a 1992 Bush convention delegate. She was no fan of Democrats, who “stood for big government that obstructed individual freedom.”
Melich wrote those words in a memoir published in 1996. The book’s title was The Republican War Against Women. When it came out, it caused a small stir, but these days her eyewitness account of her party’s transformation seems more pertinent and prescient than ever. It gives the lie to the notion that a Republican war on women is some Democratic trope, trumped up in recent weeks for political use in 2012. Her history also reminds us that the hostility toward modern women resurfacing in the GOP today was baked into the party before the religious right gained its power and before recriminalizing abortion became a volatile cause.
The GOP started backing away from its traditional beneficence on women’s issues at the tail end of the Nixon presidency. Nixon had a progressive GOP take for his time: He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, appointed an impressive number of talented women, and in 1972 signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to strengthen the policing of workplace discrimination. But, in a telling shift a few months earlier, he also vetoed a bipartisan bill enabling child care for the millions of mothers then rapidly joining the workforce. As Melich observes, it would have been consistent with GOP frugality if Nixon had rejected the bill solely because of its cost. But his veto was accompanied by a jarring statement that child care would threaten American families by encouraging women to work. The inspiration for this unexpected reactionary broadside came not from fundamentalist clergy but from cynical, secular political strategists eager to exploit the growing backlash against the sixties feminist movement, much as the “southern strategy” was exploiting the backlash against the sixties civil-rights movement.
This tactic preceded Roe v. Wade, which was decided in 1973. The new GOP was hostile to female liberation, period, not just female sexual freedom. The pitch was articulated by Newt Gingrich in his first successful congressional race in Georgia in 1978. His opponent, a state senator named Virginia Shapard, crusaded for the Equal Rights Amendment and bankrolled her own campaign. That uppity profile gave the Gingrich forces an advertising message: “Newt will take his family to Washington and keep them together; Virginia will go to Washington and leave her husband and children in the care of a nanny.” Newt won by nine percentage points. One of his campaign officials tied his victory to the strategy of “appealing to the prejudice against working women, against their not being home.”
This hostility to independent women was codified in the national Republican platform throughout the seventies. A 1972 plank supporting federal assistance for day-care services was softened in 1976, then dropped entirely at the Reagan convention of 1980. A 1972 stipulation that “every woman should have the freedom to choose whatever career she wishes—and an equal chance to pursue it” also vanished. The 1980 platform instead took a patriarchal stance, applauding mothers and homemakers for “maintaining the values of this country.”
By then the anti-choice extremists of the religious right had merged with the hard right to produce the GOP convention from hell in 1992 in Houston. As if Pat Buchanan’s legendary address calling for an all-out culture war were not crazed enough, the vice-president’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, declared that “most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Women, in fact, had now fallen to a status lower than the fetus as far as this recalibrated Republican Party was concerned. “I can’t imagine a crime more egregiously awful than forcible rape,” said Congressman Henry Hyde at a convention platform hearing, before going on to add: “There is honor in having to carry to term, not exterminating the child. From a great tragedy, goodness can come.”
The indignities of the 1992 Republican convention and campaign were all countenanced by Melich’s own candidate, the former “Rubbers,” who had long since repudiated his past good works on family planning. In disgust, she and many other Republican women voted for Bill Clinton. In what would later be dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” four new women were elected to the Senate in 1992, all Democrats. The gender gap, which had made its first appearance in the Reagan ascendancy of 1980, kept growing during the Clinton presidency. Mary Matalin blamed the problem, much as Noonan does now, on faulty communications that confused the issue for women voters. Conservatives needn’t worry about “changing their message,” Matalin condescendingly advised in 1996, but should instead focus on “conveying it in ways intelligible to women.”