In the 1970s, the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment turned Republican leaders like Mary Dent Crisp into GOP outcasts.
y June 1980, Mary Dent Crisp began to suspect that her office was bugged. Crisp, the co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, had wondered for weeks why sensitive information appeared to be leaking from her Washington office to the press, and she noticed a beeping sound on the line during calls. She called in a private investigator to conduct a countersurveillance sweep of the office.
The investigator found no direct evidence of bugging but noted “two suspicious situations”: a wire running from a neighboring office through Crisp’s room to an unknown destination, and an electromagnetic “energy/radio field” detectable at a window near her desk. Crisp reported this to her fellow RNC officials. Three days later—an excessively long time, in her opinion—they called in another firm to investigate. That firm reported no evidence of surveillance. Eventually the police took over and concluded, after a seven-month investigation, that no bugging had taken place.
Although this case was deemed a false alarm, the idea that espionage might take place in a party committee’s headquarters would have hardly seemed farfetched just two presidential election cycles after the Watergate break-in. More notable was the fact that Crisp suspected the culprits to be members of her own party.
Crisp was a pro-choice, Equal Rights Amendment advocate locked in conflict with the Reagan campaign and its supporters. Her story—an RNC co-chair whose gradual professional isolation brought her to the point of suspecting skullduggery by factional enemies—captures in a vivid way a broader process that activists on the left and right helped to hasten during the 1970s: the partisan sorting of gender politics.
Positions on issues relating to women’s rights—from abortion to workplace justice to equality before the law—did not, as of the early 1970s, break down clearly along party lines. That began to change by the decade’s end, with feminist and antifeminist movement activists alike working to hasten the process. The untenable position in which Mary Crisp found herself in June 1980 resulted from the parties’ polarization in the preceding years.
Crisp’s story, drawn from archival material as well as contemporaneous journalistic accounts, takes on new resonance in our current political moment. Donald Trump ascended to the White House after an election that boasted the biggest gender gap on record, even as he simultaneously enjoyed enthusiastic support from a robust minority of women voters. (He won a majority of white women’s votes.) More striking, the opposition to Trump’s presidency—on the streets, on the ballot, and in the halls of Congress—has been dominated and defined by women. Women’s marches across the country bookended Trump’s first year in office, thousands of female candidates have jumped into electoral races at the local, state and federal level, and the #MeToo movement continues to rock politics and political culture just as it does other major institutions in American life.
The dynamics that enabled a man like Trump to capture the Republican Party have also shaped the nature of the resistance to his rule. And those dynamics can be traced back to the partisan sorting of feminism and antifeminism in the 1970s that caught Mary Crisp, along with so many others, in the crosswinds.
Crisp was a career-long Republican and a feminist, and during her rise within party ranks, few perceived the combination to be contradictory. A former precinct captain in Maricopa County, Arizona, she served as a Republican national committeewoman during the Ford years and as the national convention secretary in 1976. Despite her support for President Gerald Ford in his nomination contest against Ronald Reagan that year, she encountered little opposition from Reaganites when newly elected RNC chairman Bill Brock chose her as party co-chair in January 1977.
Within months, however, Crisp’s penchant for candid press quotes drew their anger, beginning with her public criticism of Reagan’s “idea of purism” and her insistence that the Republican Party had to be able to encompass figures as ideologically disparate as Barry Goldwater and Jacob Javits.
The main focus of conservatives’ opposition to Crisp was her outspokenness on women’s rights. Her patron at the RNC, Mary Louise Smith, had managed to serve as the party’s first female chairwoman without controversy despite a reputation as, in one profiler’s words, an “ardent feminist.” But in the years since Smith took the reins in 1974, a powerful antifeminist movement had grown in coalition with other elements of the New Right. When Crisp, a member of President Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women, spoke out for abortion rights, federal support for childcare, and redressing gender inequities in Social Security, or against job discrimination, those movement activists listened.
The Equal Rights Amendment was the key symbolic issue around which feminist and antifeminist forces mobilized for a fight in the mid to late 1970s, and Crisp’s pro-ERA advocacy galvanized conservative opposition to an intensity that Smith’s had not just a few years earlier. The National Women’s Conference, set to take place in honor of International Women’s Year, or IWY, in Houston in 1977, became a proving ground for both anti-ERA and antiabortion forces—ultimately marking, in historian Marjorie Spruill’s words, an “important turning point … in the evolution of American political culture” itself.
That March, Phyllis Schlafly, the powerful, shrewd leader of STOP ERA and the Eagle Forum, launched a new initiative called the IWY Citizens’ Review Committee. The project mobilized social and religious conservatives to participate in state delegate-selection conferences and to work to elect their own as delegates. A quarter of the Houston delegates ended up being conservatives.
One startled Republican feminist described what a typical mobilization looked like to Crisp. “The IWY at Nebraska was a disaster last weekend,” Pat Lahr Smith wrote to her in July. “The ‘Pro-Lifers’ rallied hundreds of people to drive into Lincoln on Sunday, register, and vote for their slate. That was the end of a balanced slate. Their slate was 500 votes ahead of the next names.” And for the conservative activists who did not make it into the national convention in Houston as delegates, Schlafly’s committee staged a 15,000-strong Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally in the city during the proceedings.
The National IWY Commission’s draft resolutions featured a panoply of liberal feminist planks—not only endorsement of the ERA and abortion rights, but also federal aid for childcare, universal healthcare, and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the run-up to Houston, a Schlafly-led letter-writing campaign deluged public officials and convention delegates. Crisp, as both an Arizona delegate to the conference and an RNC official, hardly escaped. “I was appalled at the manner in which the Arizona IWY Convention was conducted,” one woman wrote to her, “and I am ashamed to know that you are a delegate of the IWY (at the same time as National Co-Chairman of the National Republican Party—my party).” Crisp was undaunted by the letters, pointing out in response to each of them that support for ERA ratification was part of the 1976 Republican Platform, as it had been for more than three decades.
The following year, after surviving an effort by Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger to replace her at the RNC, Crisp wrote to every Republican member of Congress to urge support for a bill that would extend the ERA ratification deadline. Her efforts outraged conservatives anew. They sent more streams of mail to her office and to Bill Brock’s. One ex-senator, George Murphy of California, articulated in a letter to Brock the partisan case against Crisp’s lobbying effort: “It is quite obvious that this is a liberal Democrat sponsored effort at best, and therefore, not in the Republican area for activity.” Brock would dutifully point out in response, just as Crisp did, that support for ERA ratification was a Republican platform position. But the center of gravity on gender issues was shifting so rapidly within the party by 1978 that the letter-writer’s arguments for what did and did not constitute a legitimate “Republican area for activity” were plausible.
Polarization of the parties on gender issues took place rapidly and dramatically in the 1970s. As the political scientist Christina Wolbrecht has calculated, the percentage of House Democrats who co-sponsored legislation related to women’s rights began to exceed the figure for Republicans for the first time in 1972. The same interparty gap began to open in the Senate by 1978. Also starting in 1978, the difference in the National Women’s Political Caucus scores on women’s rights-related legislative votes earned by the median members of the two parties began to skyrocket—with Democrats scoring ever higher and Republican scores plummeting. The dueling gatherings in Houston in 1977, meanwhile, testified to the intensity of the polarization underway among grassroots activists.
As Crisp ran into these crosswinds, she became a source of growing irritation for Brock and his staff. In early 1979, Jimmy Carter removed Bella Abzug as the head of his National Advisory Committee for Women after Abzug openly criticized the president’s proposed budget cuts. The majority of the committee’s membership—including Crisp—resigned in protest of the firing. Conservative Republicans expressed befuddlement. “Why oh why did you resign just because that dreadful Bella was removed?” a Virginia woman asked her in a letter. Crisp “has permitted her interest in the radical women’s movement to overshadow her responsibility to the Republican Party,” the head of a Tennessee Republican Women’s Club insisted. A group of 10 congressmen wrote Brock to ask him to “please help us explain to Republicans in our Districts why the removal of Bella Abzug from any governmental body is not cause for rejoicing rather than regret and resignation.”
Brock began to keep Crisp at arm’s length at the RNC, with relations worsening in the summer of 1979 during the early planning stages for the national convention. In notes she prepared for a meeting in 1979 with Brock to resolve the issues, Crisp shared her frustration: “If my position is becoming impotent, I cannot sit back and let it happen.”
The presidential primary of 1980 worsened these tensions. As the Reagan campaign marched forcefully from state victory to state victory against his Republican competitors, Crisp grew increasingly vocal about the threat his candidacy would pose to the platform’s pro-ERA plank. Engagement with issues like ERA and abortion rights helped pique Crisp’s interest in John Anderson’s campaign. Anderson, an Illinois congressman, had run as a maverick social liberal in the primaries with little success; in March, he relaunched his presidential bid as an independent.
Three months later, with Reagan having all but secured the Republican nomination, Crisp shared her thoughts to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter in a fit of shockingly ill-advised candor. Supporting Anderson, she said, might pose a solution to the “big dilemma” facing pro-ERA women heading into a convention dominated by Reagan. Although she refrained from endorsing Anderson’s candidacy, she deemed his chances of winning the presidency “not so far-fetched.” She referred to his GOP credentials as “impeccable—he only refuses to say he’s content with Reagan’s way of looking at problems.”
Within a day of the publication of Crisp’s interview, Brock sent her a blistering memo that called her comments “wrong and totally inappropriate for a major party official.” To ensure that she “adopt the lowest profile possible” to avoid exacerbating the damage she had caused, Brock informed Crisp that he would eliminate her welcoming remarks from the convention program and cancel the two events she had been scheduled to host. Four days later, she informed her colleagues that she would not be seeking re-election as RNC co-chair.
A week after that came the intrigue surrounding the bugging scare in Crisp’s office. The police concluded that the electromagnetic field was normal for an office setting and the suspicious wire was likely the remnant of an interoffice bell system, but Crisp would never shake her conviction that she had been tapped. Brock made it clear that he thought her suspicions were unwarranted. Members of Reagan’s camp were happy to go further, offering sexist mockery through a veil of anonymity. When a Washington Post reporter asked an unnamed Reagan aide why Crisp might suspect that she was being surveilled, he responded, “I have no way of judging the reaction of frustrated middle-aged women.”
Crisp’s professional crisis coincided with the crisis of feminist Republicanism that culminated in the platform meetings that preceded the 1980 national convention in Detroit. In early July, conservative delegates succeeded in routing a last-ditch effort to save the ERA plank. The convention’s platform committee scrapped the party’s 40-year-old endorsement of the amendment and included language in the platform condemning alleged White House–directed pressure on anti-ERA states. The platform also included a sharpened antiabortion plank. Gone were the 1976 platform’s acknowledgment of party differences on the issue and call for “continuance of the public dialogue on abortion.” What was left was an endorsement of a constitutional ban and a call for the legislative prohibition of taxpayer-funded abortions.
At the final party meeting that she would attend as co-chair, Mary Crisp reacted to these developments with a tearful but defiant speech before the platform committee that startled her colleagues. She declared that the new ERA and abortion language would “bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes.” She went on, “I cannot turn my back on these issues, and I feel compelled to do whatever is within my power to prevent these two tragedies from occurring.” She finished her speech to silence from most committee officials—Brock included—and a smattering of applause from the pro-ERA minority.
Crisp’s vow to reverse the platform committee’s actions proved futile. The denouement of Crisp’s Republican career, meanwhile, was swift. Her term as co-chair of the Republican National Committee ended on July 18. Less than a month later, she took a new position: co-chairwoman of John Anderson’s independent campaign.
The journey of Mary Crisp from party leader to party dissident to party outcast coincided with the ideological sorting that transformed the party system during the 1970s. Two implicit questions would recur every time a new controversy flared up over her tenure: What was the proper Republican position on a given issue, and should disagreeing with that position affect one’s bona fides as a Republican? Revealingly, Reagan himself couched his combative response to Crisp’s July 1980 farewell remarks in the language of partisan loyalty: “Mary Crisp should look to herself and find out how loyal she’s been to the Republican Party for quite some time.” The remark implied not only that conservative positions on women’s rights were the proper Republican positions, but also that a sufficient degree of apostasy on those issues amounted to partisan disloyalty.
For those, like Crisp, on the losing end of this factional conflict, the newly emerging ideological cast of American partisanship seemed synonymous with the breakdown of the party system itself. “Establishing purity tests for political views is contrary to the basic assumptions underlying our two-party system,” she wrote in a post-convention statement she never released. Crisp was correct that such tests were contrary to basic assumptions that had underlay the American system for decades. But those assumptions were no longer tenable.
The changing politics of women’s rights within the Democratic Party in 1980 highlighted the same dynamic. Feminist activists were an ascendant force within that party, one whose organizational clout had been on full display during a 1978 midterm convention mandated by party reformers. At the 1980 Democratic convention, most members and leaders within the feminist Coalition for Women’s Rights supported Ted Kennedy’s nomination challenge against President Jimmy Carter, and their policy agenda survived the collapse of Kennedy’s candidacy. Thanks to an effective whipping operation, the coalition secured not only the reaffirmation of existing planks supporting ERA ratification and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, but also managed to win convention floor votes on two planks opposed by Carter. The first explicitly opposed restrictions on federal funding for abortions. The second stated that the “Democratic Party shall withhold financial support and technical campaign assistance from candidates who do not support the ERA.” The latter item was, of course, just the kind of “purity test” that Crisp decried, on the very issue that had compelled her to exit her own party.
The simultaneous ascendance of feminist forces within the Democratic Party and antifeminist forces within the Republicans illustrated the logic of issue sorting in a two-party system. One party’s position change affected the other party’s approach, along with the strategic arguments that internal factions might make. As Gloria Steinem pointed out in the summer of 1980, the Republicans’ decision to stake out the right wing on women’s issues bolstered the rationale for the Democrats to speak forthrightly on them as a way of mobilizing women voters. And the further such sorting proceeded on a given issue, the more obvious was the necessity of choosing a side.
That logic, combined with the iron laws of first-past-the-post electoral systems from which all third-party bids suffer, crippled John Anderson’s ability to win the support of more feminist activists. A National Organization for Women official who personally supported Anderson wrote to Crisp in the fall of 1980 to explain why the organization had chosen not to endorse him, opting instead only to emphasize “total opposition” to Reagan. “The labor-feminist alliance is important, and there are hopes that it will thrive and expand,” she wrote. “John Anderson was viewed by many to be against labor reforms and was an unacceptable choice for the labor union advocates.”
In other words, the logic of a labor-liberal coalition inclined NOW toward continued advocacy within the Democratic Party rather than to third-party adventures or a pose of bipartisanship. The mirror of that coalition and logic was the Republican alliance of social and economic conservatives. Those same alliances endure today and continue to define our politics.
Mary Dent Crisp spent the next several decades mounting a rearguard effort to bolster feminist and pro-choice forces within the Republican Party. She ran the National Abortion Rights Action League and cofounded the National Republican Coalition for Choice. By the time of her death from a stroke in 2007, she had largely resigned herself to the extinction of a once venerable feminist tendency within the Republican camp.
If the death—or expulsion—of that tendency seemed protracted to her in the years after Reagan’s election, the initial mobilization against it in the 1970s seemed as remarkable for its swiftness as its intensity. In this way, Crisp’s ordeal was not only a harbinger of political gender battles to come, but also an experience that is currently recurring among never-Trump Republicans: the disorientation of a loyalist who watches the party as it transforms rapidly—and leaves them behind.
Reprinted with permission from The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era by Sam Rosenfeld, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.