Skip to main content

Back When the Republican Party Was Endorsing Feminism

Before 1980, it was the Republican party that many feminists were turning to.
Grand Picket at the White House, on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's second inauguration. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Grand Picket at the White House, on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's second inauguration. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Being a feminist means believing in the political, social, and economic equality of women. Nowhere is it written that feminists should also support pro-regulatory government policy. And yet, to look at the latest demographics of the feminist movement, you might think it was.

It should come as no surprise that the significant majority of feminists are Democrats. Women on the whole have voted mostly for Democrats since 1980, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Attention to issues of abortion, equal pay, and parental leave is an integral characteristic of the Democrats' modern political identity; so, too, are election-time shots at their Republican counterparts' "war on women." The left's woman-friendly brand has paid off: 32 percent of self-identified feminists are Democrats; only five percent identify as Republican.

Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina thinks Republicans can capture the feminist vote. In press remarks last week, Fiorina said it was time for the GOP to "reclaim" feminism from the left majority. For anyone familiar with Republicans' recent track record on issues of women's health and equal pay, it would appear Fiorina faces a steep climb to get women who advocate for equal opportunity invested in her and her party.

Both major parties target feminists according to the voting needs of the day, not the social beliefs baked into their ideologies.

But Republicans weren't always so at odds with feminism. Pre-1970, the GOP advocated for women's right to vote, and even installed women in powerful offices. By 1980, however, all that disappeared in favor of extreme "New Right" policies. Now, as Fiorina attempts a major re-branding effort, the story of how Republicans renounced feminists to secure the conservative vote provides a useful reminder. Both major parties have opportunistically sought and dropped the goodwill of feminists. And both target feminists according to the voting needs of the day, not the social beliefs baked into their ideologies.


First-wave feminism grew out of the anti-slavery movement in the 1840s—by advocating against one form of systemic inequality, abolitionist women came to understand another that was policing their own behaviors. Female abolitionists drew so much criticism for stepping out of the "woman's sphere" that many also became feminists—Sojourner Truth would rail against the idea that she needed a man to protect her; Frederick Douglass helped organize the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which is known today as the first women's rights convention.

So it came as no surprise that when the suffragists had the power and/or the wish to vote, many aligned with Republicans, whose party was formed to put an end to slavery. For some radical early feminists, it was crucial to be bipartisan: In the eyes of radical, militant leaders like Ava Belmont and Alice Paul, the two parties were "admitted evils" dominated by men; they sought political action through organizations for women, comprised of women. But most early suffragists, according to feminist Jo Freeman, honored their connection to the abolitionist cause and "vigorously supported the party which freed the slaves." Suffragists vocally supported Republican candidates like Grant in 1872, McKinley in 1896, and Roosevelt in 1912. The Republicans and the women's movement entered into a kind of unofficial truce: The party supported the formation of female-led organizations like the Republican National Committee—which, created in 1888, preceded the first women's Democratic committee by 24 years—whose purpose was to push forward their (male) candidates.*

The early feminists didn't always agree with the GOP: They famously picketed a convention in Chicago in 1920 because Vermont and Connecticut, then Republican states, hadn't yet ratified the 19th Amendment. But Democrats, dominated by anti-integrationist Southerners and branded at that time as the "white man's party," probably didn't provide a welcoming alternative. According to Freeman, a few analyses that have been done of early voting numbers "indicate that there was a gender gap in favor of the Republican Party in most places at least until the 1930s."

Sure, women were pawns in the Republicans' ploy to grow their party; but with equal rights securing a place on their convention platform as early as 1944, it made sense to embrace their honeymoon period with the more open-minded party. Republicans installed the first woman in Congress and shepherded the 19th Amendment through a Republican-dominated Congress in 1919. Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel R. Anthony Jr. (both, R-Kansas) were the first to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment into their respective Congressional sessions in 1923, and in the midst of an embattled fight to pass it over the next few decades, President Dwight Eisenhower (R) would be the first president to call a joint session of Congress to get the bill passed. For a time, the Republicans' numbers-minded opportunism was a mutually beneficial arrangement.


And yet it was another Republican calculation that caused everything to come undone. According to Freeman, by the '60s Democrats were becoming more woman-friendly, as a means of attracting new voters. At the same time, the Republican platform was pivoting to better appeal to Southerners, who were becoming disillusioned with the government's integration policies and saw salvation in deregulation policies. Having found an unlikely but strong New Right contingent in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, Republicans lured previously apolitical, fundamentalist ministers and their followers to vote for their anti-integration policies. Dropping women was collateral damage on the road to converting the New Right: "Sex was added to race as a highly charged emotional issue which could uncouple traditional Democratic voters from the party of their birth," Freeman writes.

On July 14, 1980, the GOP took the Equal Rights Amendment off its platform for the second time and took a strong stance against abortion.

Republicans pivoted their position on women dramatically. On July 14, 1980, the GOP took the Equal Rights Amendment off its platform for the second time and took a strong stance against abortion. The party ousted the Republican National Committee co-chairwoman Mary Dent Crisp for speaking out against both; Democrats, on the other hand, pledged only to support advocates for the Equal Rights Amendment. By November 1980, a CBS News/New York Times poll recorded an eight-point voting gap between males and females supporting Republicans. "Republican feminists are left with an onerous choice," Freeman writes. "They can stay in the party and suppress their feminist concerns, or they can leave."

There wasn't much of a choice for feminists: If they cared about legislation for equality, they had to side with the Democrats. Political science professor Christina Wolbrecht, who analyzed the Convention Delegate Survey between 1972 and 1992, and its effect on feminism, found that Republicans literally replaced pro-feminist politicians with more conservative models. (Those who identified themselves as conservative increased from one-third in 1972 to about a half in the 1980s. These same people were 22 points "cooler" on the women's movement than other Republicans.)

Democrats also "replaced" their Congressional seats to reflect his new, fractured normal, according to Wolbrecht. However, senior Democrats who remained in Congress also showed some signs of "conversion"—they gradually shifted their stances to reflect the party line. Neither party was changing their stance on women to reflect enlightened thought—but of the two, Democrats were probably being the most sincere.

The political non-choice women faced in 1980 is more or less the same as they do in November 2016. It's a bad situation all around, and despite the feminist rhetoric, it's unlikely Fiorina can re-write her party's recent history. Sure, Fiorina supports over-the-counter birth control and scaled-back regulations. But memories aren't that short, and it's only been five years since she told a radio host that she would "absolutely" vote to overturn Roe v. Wade "if the opportunity presented itself.” Perhaps it goes without saying, but feminist voters can hardly be raring to give her the chance.


*UPDATE — June 17, 2015: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that women voted for these candidates.