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Where Have All The Women Gone?

by Jo Freeman

Women and women's issues faded into the background at the Philadelphia Republican Convention for the first time in thirty years. For most of that time there have been major fights over issues of particular concern to women and visible efforts by organized women, including feminists, to promote their concerns.

This year, they were barely background noise.

During the 1960s women were seldom seen and not heard at the quadrennial nominating conventions, but in 1972 Republican women, standing on the shoulders of a new feminist movement, were making waves and raising issues. They restored the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Republican Platform, where it had been from 1940 until 1964.

The year before the 1976 conventions, the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) organized a Republican Women's Task Force. Its key women were all supporters of President Ford and since he supported ERA but not abortion (legalized by the 1973 Supreme Court decision) they concentrated their efforts on the ERA at the Kansas City convention.

Nonetheless, Phyllis Schlafly's STOP ERA campaign removed the ERA issue during the deliberations of the Platform subcommittee. It was restored to the Platform by the full Committee because President Ford wanted it and candidate Ronald Reagan did not object.

The same convention saw an anti-abortion plank added to the Platform for the first time. It won overwhelmingly in the subcommittee and was not contested in the full committee. But, under the tutelage of the late Rep. Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey, enough signatures were gathered for a minority plank to bring the issue to the floor. That debate was held after midnight, and a voice vote sustained the anti-abortion plank by a substantial margin.

In the three conventions of the 1980s, the ERA and abortion were raised again and again at Republican conventions. Because Ronald Reagan was firmly in control, the 'pro' side regularly went down to defeat. But not without a struggle. Phyllis Schlafly and her allies regularly maneuvered and debated the issues with the RWTF and pro-choice Republicans.

By 1992 the RWTF had faded to a supporting role, while two groups of pro-choice Republicans -- Ann Stone's Republicans for Choice and Sue Cullman's Republican Pro-Choice Coalition -- organized the moderate forces. They had long since given up on pro-choice language and were simply asking that all references to abortion be removed from the platform. They were ignored because moderate Republicans were no longer players in the Republican Party.

In 1996, the ERA was dead and pro-Life views were so firmly in control of the Republican platform process that the Dole campaign thought it could toss a bone to moderate Republicans. The Platform staff put a 'tolerance' clause in the draft saying the party respected and welcomed those of different views on issues such as abortion. Representatives of the right went ballistic; they did not want the party to tolerate any one who tolerated abortion, and convinced the campaign that it was politically inexpedient to do so.

These debates gave the press something to write about in the otherwise dull platform process. Even though the antifeminists always won, the campaign saw publicity over abortion as a negative. The Democrats did not have this problem, because its hearings and platform committee meetings were not held the week before in the convention city as were those of the Republicans, but many weeks before in different cities where reports by local journalists rarely got national headlines.

At the July 2000 convention the Republicans were determined to have as little controversy as possible. There were no hearings during the platform week and that week was contracted to Friday and Saturday. The various subcommittees met simultaneously and debate over language was minimal. Abortion came up in the Family and Community subcommittee, but only three women spoke out (or voted) against it. Schlafly didn't need to organize anything, but merely observed from the audience.

This was repeated in the full Committee deliberations. Sue Cullman later told the press that she was pleased that there had been no pressure on the Committee members, without adding that pressure was unnecessary because defeat was so certain. "We are the pro-life party," several delegates proclaimed, even as they also said they were the "party of the open door."

Indeed, in many ways, the 2000 Republican Party Platform is incrementally more conservative on issues that touch on women. It now calls for "replacing" family planning programs with ones promoting abstinence, and eliminating "school-based clinics that provide referrals, counseling, and related services for contraception and abortion."

Sections on women in the military and Title IX (equality for women in higher education) have moved slightly toward the more traditional perspective on women and women's roles. With one major exception: the Republicans advocate federal programs to train "women and the elderly" in the safe usage of firearms.

However, 'women's health' has not yet taken on the political overtones of other 'women's' issues. The platform calls for "far greater focus on the needs of women who have historically been underrepresented in medical research and access to the proper level of medical attention."

Moderate, pro-choice Republicans weren't absent from the convention, but they were relegated to the sidelines. A pro-choice reception Sunday afternoon drew several hundred paying participants. And almost five hundred bought $100 tickets to the WISHlist breakfast on Wednesday, to honor long-standing Pennsylvania National Committeewoman Elsie Hillman. WISHlist -- Women In Senate and House -- is a PAC dedicated to raising money for moderate, pro-choice Republican women to run for office. It's President, Candy Straight, had been an articulate exponent of pro-choice views on the Platform Committee.

Phyllis Schlafly's group -- reincarnated in 1992 into the Republican National Coalition for Life -- held its usual get-together as well, at the Union League on Wednesday afternoon. Founded in 1862, the Union League was restricted to men until about fifteen years ago. This year it also rented space to Ann Stone's group as the headquarters for her 'Yank the Plank' project.

I usually go to Phyllis' event to count the house and observe the speakers, but I couldn't get in this time. A line of blue shirted cops only permitted 'invitees' to pass through. I quickly discovered that I was not on the 'acceptable' press list. The police were there because the demonstrators thought this was a good occasion to promote their own pro-choice views. About fifty of them help up signs from the curb, while a few pro-lifers displayed one of their disassembled fetus signs twenty feet away.

But no one passed out leaflets. If you didn't already know who they were and why they were there, you wouldn't find out by walking down the sidewalk. Two young men vigorously debated the merits of abortion with each other, while a third blocked my attempt to photograph the first two.

The RWTF was barely present in Philadelphia. Rosalyn O'Connell, the new Republican President of the NWPC, told the pro-choice reception that they where the ones who "truly represented Republican values."

NOW and NARAL -- which are basically Democratic interest groups -- were only at Sunday's Unity 2000 march, prominently in the front line. NOW national President Patricia Ireland told the few dozen people who listened to the speeches that "Bush and Cheney are not compassionate conservatives but ruthless reactionaries." In contrast, the Christian Coalition, formed only in 1989, hosted a standing room only rally for 3,000 in the largest ballroom of the headquarters hotel. All the speakers were men, except the MC.

As they gathered for the convention itself, women were 34 percent of the delegates and a slightly higher percent of the alternates. The Democrats require 50-50; the Republicans abhor quotas, though the states have been allowed to send only one man and one woman to the four convention committees since 1944.

The National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW) which in the past has been an advocate for women within the party, took on a traditional task: a luncheon in tribute to Laura Bush. Its Republican Women's Information Service, which in the past has been a useful source of information, issued a press advisory but was otherwise invisible.

Signs saying "W stands for Women" were placed on delegate seats in the convention hall, but no one knew what they meant. Nor were they waved for any particular speaker.

But George W. Bush's audience didn't care. His loudest applause came in response to his line on abortion; slow "racial progress" got the weakest; and "We are now treating women more equally" was in between. At the 2000 Republican convention women were props.

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