Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right. By Catherine E. Rymph. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 360 pp. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-8078-5652-5).

Reviewed by Susan Hartmann


   This deeply researched and highly readable book narrows considerably the gap in our understanding of women's political behavior and political parties' treatment of women between the passage of woman suffrage and the emergence of second-wave feminism. Equally welcome is its narrative and analysis of struggles between feminism and conservatism in the Republican party in the 1970s and the ultimate victory of the right. Republican Women describes how women practiced partisan politics over most of the 20th century, how they gained—and were excluded from—influence in the party, and how they helped shape the history of the GOP.

   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 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, usually in positions that entailed responsibility for mobilizing women; these professionals put party loyalty first and practiced the usual give-and-take of politics. 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.

   Reminding readers that women had been active in both parties decades before winning the right to vote, Rymph begins by analyzing a variety of strategies suggested by women for establishing their political voice following the ratification of the suffrage amendment. Describing how the GOP offered women equal representation on the Republican National Committee and on some state committees (mandated by laws that women had pushed in 18 states by 1929), she notes that these women were usually appointed by men, not chosen by the women they were presumed to represent.

   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. African American women, who had begun to form Republican clubs before 1920, created the National League of Republican Colored Women in 1924, more than a decade before white clubwomen had a national organization.

   After the Republicans' terrible showing in the 1936 elections—and after Molly Dewson and the Democrats had demonstrated the potential for mobilizing women—the 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."

   Martin strengthened the organization of Republican women and nurtured thousands of volunteer workers—upon whom the party increasingly depended in the post-World War II years to counter the mobilizing efficacy of organized labor for the Democrats—but she failed to stifle the independent, morality-based style of clubwomen's politics. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Women's Federation became more independent of the RNC and not hesitant to oppose it. Clubwomen who advocated greater autonomy tended to represent the right wing of the party, and they mobilized behind Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964. Three years later conservatives battled with party regulars for control of the Federation. Although the moderates won, Phyllis Schlafly turned her defeat for the organization's presidency into a grass-roots movement that would help conservatives take over the Republican party in 1980.

   Rymph describes the eclipse of the Federation as the primary vehicle for women's participation in Republican politics in the 1970s. Conservative women joined Schlafly's Eagle Forum and STOP ERA and pressured the party as outsiders; Republican feminists, such as Mary Louise Smith, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Elly Peterson, worked inside the party and in the Republican Women's Task Force (RWTF) of the National Women's Political Caucus. Rymph carefully analyzes both how feminists were able to make significant gains in female participation and in the party platform and why Republican feminism was so short-lived. In the end, the women who gained most power in the party formed a third type of partisan women, representing neither the "feminist consciousness of the RWTF [nor] the female consciousness of Schalfly's Eagle Forum." (232) Rather, the women who rose in party ranks, such as Mary Matalin, expressed no gender identity at all and espoused no specifically female causes.

   There is little to criticize in this broadly researched and judiciously argued work. Rymph may exaggerate the extent to which participating in politics as a moral crusade is unique to women. She presents considerable evidence to demonstrate that women often saw their political causes in righteous and uncompromising terms, but she also notes that conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater "frequently emphasized the relationship of morality and religious faith to politics" (161); and other examples, such as William Jennings Bryan in 1896, come to mind.

   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.

   Susan Hartmann is professor of history at Ohio State University and author of several books, including The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment (Yale, 1998). She is working on a book on gender and the realignment of U.S. politics since World War II.

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