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Feminist Activities at the 1988 Republican Convention
by Jo Freeman

Published in off our backs, November 1988, pp. 10-11, 14.

A feminist presence re-emerged at the 1988 Republican Convention after an eight year hibernation. It was primarily focused on abortion, which still divides the party despite the fact that the far right continues to write the platform on all issues directly affecting women. However, since delegate polls indicated that those going to New Orleans last August distributed themselves on the political spectrum pretty much the way they did in 1984, there was no consensus on what this means for the future of a party headed by George Bush.
Feminists made their first appearance at the hearings before the platform Subcommittee on Family and Community. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans spend the week before their convention hearing testimony and writing their platform. In 1988 representatives from both NOW and NARAL presented their proposals. This was a "first" for both organizations even though neither Kim Gandy (NOW) nor Kate Michelman (NARAL) expected changes in the platform to result. The NWPC, which has co-ordinated past convention activities though its Republican Women's Task Force, did not send any one to New Orleans this year, although New York Congressman Bill Green had spoken for the NWPC at a May 31 Platform Committee hearing in Kansas City. NWPC President Irene Natividad said the NWPC's views were given by New York member Tanya Melich, who officially testified for the New York State Republican Family Committee of which she is the Executive Director.
Melich asked the Platform Committee "to exclude all abortion language from the platform, thus emphasizing the fact that we can each hold our own strongly felt views and still be tolerant of others." Michelman urged a reproductive choice plank. Neither was successful as the final platform adamantly supported a human life amendment and opposed "public revenues for abortion ... [or] organizations which advocate or support abortion."
The road to this repeat of the 1984 planks was not a smooth one. In 1984, a motion to soften the language failed for lack of a second. In 1988 more moderate voices were at least heard before they were defeated. The first move was made by Lynn Glaze of Delaware who moved to substitute Melich's proposal favoring family planning programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies for the anti-abortion plank. Glaze, who described herself as a "ringer", had only met Melich at the hearings. She had been a last minute substitute for Delaware's Senator Roth and had only been involved in Delaware politics for a few years. She said her daughter was a feminist lawyer in California and urged her to speak out when she was appointed to the Platform Committee. She had planned to do so anyway even though she had had no prior contact with the NWPC or any other feminist advocate.
When Bunny Chambers of Oklahoma successfully tabled her motion Glaze tried again by moving to substitute the language from the 1976 Republican Platform. That year the party favored "a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion" while still supporting a constitutional amendment to ban it. When this was also tabled John Easton of Vermont moved to substitute the 1980 plank, which essentially added to the 1976 language an objection to the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion. When Chambers once again moved to table, Glaze insisted on a roll call vote. She and Easton were joined by Edgar Ross of the Virgin Islands as the "no" votes. Not present to watch the platform subcommittee vote against the party's 1976 and 1980 planks was Sen. Lowell Weicker (Conn.), who had told the press that he would be proposing pro-choice substitutes. Weicker had returned to Washington the day before.
Throughout this tense maneuvering there was no actual debate on the issues. Chambers said later that she had used the tabling route because she didn't want the public to see the party bickering over an issue that was long since settled. C-SPAN television cameras were present the entire time. Their presence may also explain the lack of questions of the feminist speakers when they testified the day before. In 1984, when the NWPC's Mary Stanley and former Republican National Committee chair Mary Louise Smith testified in favor of the ERA they were barraged with questions about Geraldine Ferraro's finances.
Debate finally occurred when the issue was taken up by the full Platform Committee the following evening. Sen. Weicker was back, with several possible amendments, but as in the subcommittee there was no prior plan or co-ordinated effort to present specific substitutes or articulate particular positions on an issue the Republican Party would prefer not to discuss at all. Indeed on at least one proposal, the debate was so subtle that only insiders knew that abortion was the topic.
During discussion of the section on "Jobs" Rep. Nancy Johnson (Conn.) moved to delete the last two sentences from a paragraph on foreign aid. The first criticized the World Bank and the second opposed "U.S. funding for organizations involved in abortion." Only the World Bank was debated, but the real importance on the second was demonstrated by the first actual vote of the Platform Committee. This time it was Marilyn Shannon of Oregon who moved to table. Although she had not sat on the Family Subcommittee, she was Bunny Chambers' roommate at the convention and sat next to her on the Committee. Both are former Democrats and members of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum who earned their political stripes fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment during the late seventies. Chambers told Shannon "It's your turn to make the motion." Johnson's proposal was tabled by a vote of 36 to 30.
When the Platform Committee shifted to the Family section, everyone waited to see who would make the first move. It came from an unexpected quarter. Marjorie Bell Chambers of New Mexico, another "ringer" unknown to the other moderates, strongly objected to the last four words in the sentence "We believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. She realized that this particular phraseology elevated the life of the fetus above that of the mother -- the most extreme position in the spectrum of pro-life ideologies. Unlike Glaze, Chambers had not come to the convention with the intention of making a statement. But as a former President of the AAUW and chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women after President Carter fired Bella Abzug, she knew a bad idea when she saw one.
In the interim between the Johnson motion and Chambers', several Committee members complained to Bush campaign operatives about the use of a tabling motion to cut off debate and they instructed Shannon not to do so again. Subsequently Platform Committee Chair Kay Orr, Governor of Nebraska, told the Committee that she would not recognize any more tabling motions. Consequently the debate over the Chambers (no relation to Bunny) motion to delete the four words was a lengthy one after which Chair Orr announced its defeat by a hand vote of 55 to 32. Two independent counters said the vote was actually 45 to 35.
Whatever the actual count, observers interpreted the final vote as reflecting the strength of Republican moderates even though the plank voted on was on far edge of possible opinions about abortion. Since only 27 signatures are necessary for a minority report which could be debated on the floor of the convention, the votes on the Johnson and Chambers motions fuled speculation about whether the moderates would unite behind specific language and take the issue to the floor. Thus by the time Senator Weicker finally made his own motion -- to provide Medicaid funding for abortions resulting from rape, incest or to save the life of the mother -- its defeat by a voice vote was barely noticed. If there was going to be a floor fight it would be over whether the life of the mother could ever take precedence over that of the fetus.
The only time there was a floor debate at a Republican convention over a feminist issue was in 1976 when Rep. Millicent Fenwick (NJ) led a 2:00 am effort to remove all mention of abortion from the platform. Efforts by anti-ERA delegates that year to obtain a minority report removing the ERA from the Platform were discouraged by candidate Ronald Reagan, even though the ERA had only received a bare majority in the Platform Committee. In 1980 the Platform Committee voted down motions for neutral recognition of the right to differ on abortion by 75 to 18 and on the ERA by 90 to 9. In 1984 there was nothing to debate.
Although both the Family Subcommittee and the full Platform committee quickly voted down a motion to support the ERA made by Lynn Glaze, the vote over abortion indicated that by 1988 many of the moderates who had been run out of the party by the Reaganites were filtering back in. What was not clear was whether the approximately one-third of the 106-member Platform Committee were a reflection of the convention itself.
A delegate poll by U.S.A. Today found that just as many delegates to the 1988 convention called themselves conservative or very conservative as in 1984. John Leopold, a delegate from Maryland who had led the "neutral language" forces in 1980 as a delegate from Hawaii, claimed that the discrepancy between the platform committee vote and the delegate polls was spurious. He explained that many more moderates became delegates in 1988 as part of Bush's victory, but they were more likely to call themselves conservative because that was the most politically safe label. He thought that many who had worked for Bush in his 1980 race sat out 1984 but were back in 1988. On the other hand, several moderates on the Platform Committee, including John Easton of Vermont and Nancy Thompson of the District of Columbia, said they had made a particular effort to get on that committee and they were aware of others like them who had also done so, even though there was no co-ordinated plan to stack the committee.
Thompson had led the Republican Women's Task Force of the NWPC at the 1980 Republican convention. That year, as in 1976, the RWTF's sole concern was keeping the ERA in the Republican Party Platform. The RWTF did not want the two issues "to be confused" and felt they had the resources only for one. The decision to stick with the ERA reflected a delicate balancing act Republican feminists went through in the seventies as the party was taken over by the right. The party has always looked with suspicion on any kind of organized interest group within it in much the same way that labor unions have been hostile to anything approaching "dual unionism".
As feminism became identified with the Democratic Party, feminist organizations, such as NOW and the NWPC, were denounced as Democratic Party front groups. Because affiliation with the NWPC gave RWTF members the image of disloyalty to the Republican Party, they sought autonomy within the NWPC. When this proved unattainable, Thompson said, the RWTF "became defunct." She explained the NWPC's absence from the Platform hearings as an acknowledgement that it "has become identified with the Democratic Party" despite its preference for bipartisanship. "Irene Natividad felt her presence at the GOP Platform Committee was not appropriate," Thompson said. "She knew there were several people who would carry the water within the party."
These people operated as an informal network rather than through a co-ordinated effort. Indeed the activities of Republican feminists and other moderates at the Platform Committee closely resembled the "structurelessness" favored by radical feminists when the women's liberation movement began in the late sixties and early seventies. There was no agreed on program and no one assumed leadership. Spontaneity was the preferred mode of approach in promoting their positions. Rep. Nancy Johnson said she had drawn up several pro-choice amendments to different planks in the platform but shelved them when Chambers made her motion.
Despite their willingness to speak out on abortion and some other issues, the moderates were Republicans first and Bush supporters first of all. A minority report on the Chambers proposal was drawn up but withdrawn from circulation after only a few signatures were obtained because Bush operatives made it clear that they didn't want any minority reports or floor debates. Indeed, Marjorie Bell Chambers told Bush's Western regional representative Tom Hardwick that she wouldn't petition for a minority report before he could even ask her not to. The petition that was briefly circulated was prepared by others without her knowledge. Instead of a minority report, eleven moderates held a press conference on the final day of platform deliberations to express their pleasure at the completed document and their support for George Bush. This is a "progressive platform" they said, though abortion remained an issue on which they differed.
As Bush operatives made clear, the 1988 platform was essentially the one that had been drafted by the right in 1984, though a few new planks were added. The conventional wisdom was that the platform was Bush's concession to the right to keep them in line for the campaign. The fight over abortion was consistent with that interpretation. Bush operatives said the Vice President was happy with the Platform even though it differed from his own view. Bush's current position is that exceptions to a ban on abortion should be made for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and public funding should be provided for the latter.
Nonetheless, Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, the campaign's point-man on the Platform Committee, tried to persuade reporters that the Committee had been even handed in its handling of amendments. "We held off both sides who wanted to change the language on abortion and stuck with the '84 language," he said. "We fought it out then and agreed on this language." When asked, John C. Wilke, President of National Right to Life and Elaine Donally of Eagle Forum said they were quite pleased with the draft that had been presented to the Subcommittee and had not wanted any changes. Both organizations had representatives present throughout the Platform debate and many supporters on the Platform Committee.
Thompson dismissed the willingness of the Bush campaign to concede the platform to the right as any indication of its power within the campaign. "The Bush campaign is riddled with good women," she said. "While there is no longer an organized Republican feminist group, there is a network of good women." She felt these would be the people who influenced a Bush administration on women's issues and not the far right or Phyllis Schlafly.
Of all the planks in the Family section, the least controversial was the one which in fact was the most revolutionary. The final draft of the Platform devoted roughly two percent of its space to child care. Although the topic had received brief mention in previous Platforms, it was one of the few new issues in 1988. Recognition of the importance of child care marked a significant departure from the past. In 1971 President Nixon vetoed a child care bill because of its "family weakening implications." Ford and Carter also expressed disapproval of bills in Congress during their Presidencies. Both the extent of the testimony and the amount of attention to child care in the 1988 Platform indicate that it has finally been accepted as a legitimate policy arena. The issue is no longer whether the government should have any role in helping families care for their children, but what kind.
Eagle Forum members Elaine Donally and Marilyn Thayer explained their support for the child care plank with statistics. Labor force surveys show that mothers of young children continue to pour into the labor force, they said. It's no longer possible for mothers to stay home with their children all the time; the alternative to child care is latch key children. Rep. Nancy Johnson gave much the same answer when asked why Sen. Orrin Hatch, not previously known for his support of feminist issues, was a co-sponsor of her child care bill. The Hatch-Johnson bill has been denounced by the Heritage Foundation as "violat[ing] all the principles of a true pro-family policy."
As expected, the Platform's child care planks were not politically neutral. Donally, a deposed Kemp delegate from Michigan who closely monitored the Family Subcommittee proceedings for Schlafly, said the "battle had been won before the committee meeting." The Bush proposal of a "toddler tax credit" for "families of modest means" was favored, and the Act for Better Child Care bill currently before Congress that is sponsored by Democrats was denounced as "a new federal program that negates parental choice and disdains religious participation."
The impact of the women's movement could be seen throughout the section. The Republican Party asked that "public policy ... acknowledge the full range of family situations. Mothers or fathers who stay at home ... should all receive the same respect.... "Parental care" was deemed the best. The word "maternal" was not used. "Individual empowerment" was lauded. Employers were encouraged to "use more flexible work schedules and job sharing to recognize the household demands upon their work force." All of this was passed without debate. The one amendment, made in the Subcommittee by Bunny Chambers at the request of Schlafly lieutenant Colleen Perro, was to add "Establishment of a plan that does not discriminate against single-earner families with one parent in the home."
The only new proposal by feminists that did make it into the platform was an idea that originated with NOW, though no one on the Republican Party Platform Committee was aware of that fact. When Nancy Thompson proposed to the full Committee that "the Republican party strongly supports the efforts of women to achieve parity in government, and is committed to the vigorous recruitment, training and funding of women candidates at all levels" she caught the Bush campaign by surprise. Deborah Steelman, director of domestic policy for Bush, decided to signal support, but not before there was an erratic debate that fractured all other factional lines. No one wanted to be against women candidates in a Committee that was almost half women, but parity for women candidates supported by funding didn't sit well with conservatives.
Thompson was determined to see the plank in the platform and wasn't particular about its final form. She accepted every proposed amendment as a friendly one. Consequently, "qualified" was inserted before "women candidates" and then taken out when Angela Buchanan of California, wife of conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, argued that if "qualified" wasn't necessary for men to be candidates, it certainly wasn't necessary for women. Marilyn Thayer of Louisiana, who had chaired the Family Subcommittee without getting involved in the abortion debate, repeatedly objected to "funding" even after it was pointed out that the three national Republican committees have been funding women candidates for years. Thompson agreed to replace "funding" with "campaign support." "Parity" was such an unRepublican word that even Rep. Nancy Johnson objected. It was changed to "seeking an equal role."
Throughout the debate no one observed that it paralleled a new plank in the Democratic Platform on "full and equal access of women and minorities to elective office and party endorsement." This plank had been the brainchild of Ellie Smeal, former NOW President and founder of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. It had reached the Republican Platform Committee by a circuitous route. The Women's Campaign Fund gave it to Rep. Nancy Johnson's office in Washington with a request that she sponsor it. Johnson, a recipient of campaign assistance from the WCF when she first ran in 1982, was receptive, but didn't want to add another item to her own Platform Committee agenda. She asked Thompson to make the motion. Thompson was already aware of the proposal as a member of the WCF Board. She didn't think she was the best person to push it but couldn't find anyone else. The final, amended, version, was passed by an overwhelming voice vote.
Needless to say Smeal was not present to see her idea incorporated into the Republican Platform. But she did come to New Orleans on Sunday for a march through the French Quarter sponsored by NOW and several other women's groups. NOW had sponsored marches at the 1976 and 1980 Republican conventions, but had not organized one in 1984. The New Orleans march compensated in color for what it lacked in numbers. Only about a hundred women were willing to brave the oppressive heat to ride in or walk around several mule-drawn carriages and one renovated streetcar. In keeping with Mardi Graw style, Smeal, current NOW President Molly Yard and other feminists threw doubloons, cups and plastic necklaces to the thin line of onlookers on the march's route. The Joan of Arc Statue outside the building where the Platform Committee had met the week before was the obvious place for the concluding rally, but the only Republican office holder who spoke was Rep. Bill Green of New York. However, Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa and Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island were also present.
Monday was Phyllis Schlafly's quadrennial affair. This time her convention fundraiser featured a reception at the New Orleans Art Museum honoring five conservative notables. Jeane Kirkpatrick, author of Political Woman and runner-up for a 1975 prize given by the American Political Science Association for the best scholarly work on women and politics, was the only woman so honored. Approximately 500 people paid $55 each to hear Kirkpatrick and the other honorees thank the Eagle Forum for its leadership. Outside the Museum gay groups held a vigil.
On Tuesday, feminist organizations resumed their assault on the Republican Platform with a press conference by Faye Wattleton, President of Planned Parenthood and Kate Michelman, Executive Director of NARAL, denouncing it as "anti-woman" and "out of sync with the American people." Michelman said latter that the Republican Party had "shot themselves in the foot" with their extreme anti-abortion language. "A year and a half ago reporters said this was a dead issue," she said, "but over the weekend every major public affairs program on TV gave time to abortion." "As a result of the extremism of the party's platform, it has become a salient issue again."
That afternoon the NWPC brought several Republican notables to the headquarters hotel to tell about two hundred non-delegates that feminists do have a place in the Republican party, despite all appearances to the contrary. Even though Bush appears to have pandered to the party's right wing on the Platform, he knows he must appeal to women. Pollster Linda DiVall said the way to do this is through "family issues such as day care, education and health."
Feminist Republicans believe the party's biggest problem is the gender gap -- women's preference for voting Democratic -- and that it would be closed if Bush would support women's issues. However, surveys indicate that the issues which are most salient for women compared to men are traditional Democratic issues, such as day care, education and health. The economic and foreign policy issues which differentiate Republicans and Democrats don't appear to have much of an impact on how women vote. Even abortion does not command the same allegiance of women as public spending for social programs, though pro-choicers are somewhat more likely to be Democrats.
Since the Republican Party has ceded sovereignty over social issues to conservatives, it does not know how to woo the women's vote. Instead it denies there is a problem. In the convention issue of Republican Woman, National Federation of Republican Women President Judy Hughes called "this illusion a 'media gap'." Founded in 1937, the NFRW claims over 140,000 members. In 1956 it endorsed the ERA. In 1967 Phyllis Schlafly was defeated for NFRW President by a challenger hand-picked by the Republican establishment. While NFRW President, Gladys O'Donnell became an ardent ERA activist who persuaded the RNC to endorse the ERA in 1971. The NFRW no longer endorses issues.
Denial also marked the party's response to queries about the number of women delegates, and why there were fewer than in 1984. A week before the convention started the NFRW released figures showing that only 28 percent of the delegates were female. Neither Judy Hughes nor any other convention spokesperson would comment on the fall-off from the 48 percent claimed in 1984. A few days later a fact sheet released by the Media Operations Center stated that women were 40 percent of all delegates and alternates. This release, based on an RNC survey with an 80 percent response rate, was not publicly displayed with the other press releases. It was kept in a file and given out only on request -- until the small print run ran out a few days later.
Rob Fairbank, an RNC delegate tracker, provided raw numbers in a phone interview. These indicated that 36.4 of the delegates and 44.2 percent of the alternates were women. Traditionally, women have been more likely to attend the convention as alternates than as delegates, but this was obscured by the numbers in the RNC fact sheet kept in the Media Operations Center file. When asked about the drop off from 1984, Fairbank replied that that survey only had a 40 percent response rate and thus was not comparable to one with an 80 percent response rate. He also claimed that the earlier figures provided by the NFRW were based on their own survey and also not comparable to the RNC's.
Delegate surveys by the Los Angeles Times with a 97 percent response rate and CBS news with a 99 percent response rate found that 33 to 34 percent of the 1988 Republican delegates were women. A New York Times survey of 739 delegates selected at random indicated 37 percent were women. The Times quoted RNC Chair Frank J. Fahrenkopf as saying that when the nomination was uncontested in 1984 the party pushed for women delegates. With a contested nomination in 1988, this was not done. In the 1972, 1976 and 1980 conventions between 29 and 31 percent of the delegates were women.
Unlike the Democrats, the Republican Party has no requirements for representation by sex, race etc. to its quadrennial convention. Indeed the 1988 platform counsels against "discriminatory quota systems and preferential treatment." It states that "quotas are the most insidious form of reverse discrimination against the innocent." Nonetheless, the rules of the Republican Party have traditionally provided for sex quotas in party and convention committees, though these provisions have been occasionally been eroded.
In 1924, the Republican National Committee was expanded to include one man and one woman from each state. In 1952, over the vocal opposition of women delegates to that convention, state chairmen were made automatic RNC members. Virtually all state chairs are men. In 1944 the Platform Committee was expanded to include one man and one woman from each state. In 1960 this requirement was extended to the three other convention committees. However, the states were only permitted, not required, to send two people of the opposite sex. Since all committee members had to be delegates, if a state had insufficient women delegates to fill all four committee slots, they remained vacant.
Currently, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico can also send one man and one woman to each committee, but the Virgin Islands and Guam can only send one person. The 1988 Rules Committee added one delegate from American Samoa. The rules also provide that the RNC have "a chairman and a co-chairman of the opposite sex" and eight "vice chairmen, comprising one man and one woman" from each of four regions. At least four of the eleven members of the RNC Chairmen's Executive Council must be women.
Women have been named as co-chairmen of the different committees and subcommittees though their equal representation in these leadership positions was often more illusory than real. This practice has recently been expanded to provide a larger number of titles to committee members. In 1988, Platform Chairman Kay Orr had two (male) co-chairmen and one (male) vice-chairman. They sat on the dias with her though she chaired most of the Platform Committee meetings. The seven subcommittees also had co-chairmen. Four subcommittees had female chairmen, and one of these also had a female co-chairman. The other three had male chairmen, one with a female co-chairmen, one with a male, and one with one of each sex. "Chairman" is the preferred Republican title. Only the Democratic Party has chairwomen or chairpersons.

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