Politics & Policy

What Women Wanted

Reagan appealed to and developed a generation of female conservatives.

Every year in February, in observance of Valentine’s Day as well as the birthday of Ronald Reagan, I display in my home a framed memento of the great former president. The small white presidential campaign placard, inscribed with the words “Women for Reagan” on a large red heart, bears a treasured autograph of Reagan himself.

Feminists will never credit him for this, but President Reagan motivated an entire generation of women to enter public life. Most Women for Reagan became involved in the political process not in spite of his conservative views, but because of them, and went on to become accomplished leaders in four Republican administrations, the Congress, media, and in every major field of public policy.

No one predicted this in the mid-1970s, when the charismatic California governor first sought the Republican presidential nomination. That goal, and his subsequent election, would not have been possible without the army of conservative and pro-life women nationwide who mobilized their families and friends in support of Ronald Reagan.

At the time, pollsters warned that candidate Reagan would lose because of a perceived “gender gap” among female voters. It was conventional wisdom among “moderate” Republicans that Reagan could not win without the support of “pro-choice” women, epitomized by Betty Ford. Her husband, President Gerald Ford, tried to win women’s votes by signing a 1975 Executive Order establishing a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year (IWY).

Ford’s gesture paid no political dividends in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the White House. President Carter, an overtly religious man, shocked Christians who had voted for him by appointing ultra-liberal New York congresswoman Bella Abzug to chair a series of public conferences to “observe” International Women’s Year in 1977. Funded with $5 million in tax dollars, the controversial IWY conferences became a significant turning point in national politics that is worth reviewing today.

Abzug, who was known for wearing large hats and pushing radical causes, presided over 56 state and territorial conferences in 1977, leading up to a spectacular three-day National IWY Conference in Houston. Women who opposed abortion and the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) tried to be heard at the state IWY conferences, but they were intimidated and repeatedly railroaded with strong-arm tactics, turned-off microphones, and manipulated elections.

Only a token few conservative and pro-life women were among the 2,000 elected delegates at the conference, which quickly escalated into a feminist Woodstock. The extravaganza received days of uncritical coverage from bedazzled television correspondents, newsweeklies, women’s magazines, and almost every female newspaper reporter in America. Barbara Walters and other network-media mavens lavished attention on then-First Lady Roslyn Carter, her predecessors Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, Gloria Steinem, NOW President Eleanor Smeal, actress Jean Stapleton, and tennis star Billie Jean King.

All joined hands to approve the 25-point IWY Plan of Action, an undiluted “womanifesto” for big-government and feminist liberalism taken to extremes. On the wish list were several “hot button” demands: Ratification of the ERA, universal child-care subsidies, “comparable worth” wage-control schemes, taxes on full-time homemakers in exchange for Social Security benefits, tax-funded abortions on demand without parental consent, and a full array of rights for lesbian women.

In addition to parades and fist-waving speeches, the IWY festival featured an exhibition area promoting other leftist causes, including legalized prostitution. Somehow the media failed to notice the array of lesbian pornography in plain view, despite posted signs warning visitors that “some materials and displays might not be appropriate for persons of all ages.”

Meanwhile, across town at the Houston Astro Arena, a new and formidable women’s movement became visible on the national scene for the first time. ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly had organized a Pro-Family Coalition with a host of pro-life leaders. Together they planned and mobilized a massive “Pro-Life, Pro-Family” counter-rally that became a stunning success unlike anything seen before or since.

According to news reports, more than 15,000 grassroots women and families, many of whom had traveled for miles in cars or church or school buses bound for Houston, crowded the aisles and balconies of the Astro Arena. Local safety officials kept another 2,000 listening outside. Stacked high above the stage behind the podium were large boxes containing thousands of petitions, individually signed over a period of months and marked with the name of every state. The petitions called on officials at all levels of government to reject the IWY 25-point Plan of Action for radical social change.

I happened to find James J. Kilpatrick, a conservative syndicated columnist, writing notes and looking out at the huge, enthusiastic crowd from his perch behind a stack of petition boxes. Kilpatrick marveled at the resolve and energy of the women and families in the arena, and predicted that the impressive event was only the beginning of something really big.

Indeed it was. Attendees at the IWY Pro-Family rally went home to learn the basics of grassroots politics, which they saw as the key to stopping Bella Abzug and her radical agenda. In subsequent years many conservative women became precinct delegates, worked hard as county and state Republican-party officials, and became voting delegates to the Republican National Convention. In 1980, they provided a comfortable margin of victory for presidential nominee Ronald Reagan.

Coverage of that convention focused on liberal Republican women who opposed Reagan’s positions on abortion and the ERA. But while feminists were marching in the streets, pro-family women delegates were quietly writing and counting the votes for platform language reflecting Reagan’s views. In 1980, 1984, and 1988, the powerful grassroots pro-family movement worked tirelessly for the election of Ronald Reagan and his successor, President George H. W. Bush.

But the influence of Women for Reagan did not end there. Many of the original activists and a younger generation of women were appointed to high-level positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush. Others were elected to state legislatures, Congress, and the Senate, and are still in office today. Some became respected scholars at think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, or continue to influence public policy as articulate spokeswomen for large women’s organizations such as Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America.

Every week National Review’s Washington editor, Kate O’Beirne, cheerfully demolishes the illogic of Margaret Carlson and other liberals on CNN’s Capital Gang. And when the Clinton-impeachment struggle ensued, a team of “brainy blond barristers”–Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, and the late Barbara Olson–appeared on television night after night to fearlessly defend the Constitution against the likes of Susan Estrich, Ellen Ratner, and Eleanor Clift.

Women for Reagan have made distinctive marks in other fields of public policy. In education, for example, Reagan women have successfully promoted school-choice and abstinence-based sex-education programs, which are now being espoused by Miss America 2003, Erika Harold.

Women who revere Reagan are writing best-selling books, editing influential websites such as National Review Online, and producing publications such as The Women’s Quarterly, the signature publication of Independent Women’s Forum. And much to the dismay of feminists, they are advising President George W. Bush on a long list of public-policy matters, including the environment, law, personnel management, labor policy, defense, and national security during the war on terrorism.

Feminists in 1977 thought that their historic IWY conferences would inspire women to take over the world. The irony is that the conferences did have that effect, but those who were motivated the most were admirers of Ronald Reagan. This chapter of political history is yet another legacy of a great president, whose match we may never see. Because of the countless women he inspired, the principles and beliefs of Ronald Reagan will live on for decades to come.

Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public-policy organization that specializes in military-personnel issues. She was the recipient of the 2002 Ronald Reagan Award, presented by the American Conservative Union.


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