Republican Feminism

 

Republican Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of
the New Right.
By Catherine E. Rymph.
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.)

Catherine E. Rymph, a history professor at the University of Missouri, frames much of
her study around the dilemma facing activist women after they won the vote in 1920.
Should women seek integration within the political parties on the same terms as men, or
should they organize separately as women? Would women more readily gain power for
themselves and attention to their issues by working as insiders within party institutions or
by forming women's attention to their issues by working as insiders within party
institutions or by forming women's clubs and acting independently of party leaders?
Rymph shows that both strategies operated among women in the Republican Party.
"Party women" promoted integration, loyalty and compromise, while "club women" prized
separation and uncompromising independence. Before the 1970s, a few women
obtained official party posts. The majority of Republican women, however, put their
energies into separate women's clubs, displaying a political style associated with
women's pre-suffrage activism. This style was based on women's differences from men:
their superior morality, their lack of self-interest, and their sense of women's politics as a
moral crusade.

 

While this form of politics drove progressive causes in the early years of women's
enfranchisement, in the 1960s and beyond it characterized the movement of right-wing
Republican women led by Phyllis Schlafly. Women simultaneously organized
Republican women's clubs at the local and state levels, which numbered in the
thousands by the 1930s. Some were little more than elite social clubs and some were
controlled by male party leaders, but many were genuine grassroots groups independent
of the party leadership. These clubs provided familiar and unthreatening environments
for women to gain their political feet, and they tended to engage in politics in crusading,
uncompromising, moral terms.

 

Republican National Committee (RNC) appointed Marion Martin to a new position,
assistant chairman in charge of women's activities. A former Maine legislator and
dedicated to the advancement of women in politics, Martin was a "party woman," but one
of her key responsibilities was to bring the disparate local clubs together as force that
would work for—not independently of—the party. To this end she established the
National Federation of Women's Republican clubs and for the next ten years struggled to
turn "club women" into "party women." Republican Women reveals what went on at
club meetings in members' living rooms as well as what transpired in negotiations
among men and women in the party elite. Narratives about key individuals help the
reader understand larger trends. Rymph is careful to note connections to past practices
and links to national developments beyond women's history and partisan politics. Her
analyses of such questions as the relationship between feminism and Republicanism are
thorough and sensible. In all, this book demonstrates the necessity for and the rewards
of integrating women's history with political history.