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11.01.09

How the GOP Loses Women

Dede Scozzafava’s exit from a New York House race is just the latest example of the new Republican Party’s hostility to pro-choice women. Linda Hirshman on why Sarah Palin is a club of one.

Former Republican congressional candidate Dede Scozzafava cried real tears Saturday as she conceded the right-wingers had pushed her out of her race. Even though her local party had picked her to run in Tuesday’s election for the upstate New York seat vacated by the new secretary of the Army, John McHugh, her support for abortion and gay marriage made her too liberal for the new national party. Insurgent Republicans, led by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, mounted a candidate on the conservative line, and fought Scozzafava so effectively that she turned tail and ran. She then endorsed the Democrat.

The transformation of the Republican Party by the rise of conservative, evangelical, and Southern movements disables the Republicans from grooming a new generation of female candidates.

Watch out, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Locked in a Republican primary battle for governor of Texas, and unwilling to say women should go to jail for their abortions, she is the next duck in the barefoot and pregnant shooting gallery. All the coverage has been about the conservative attack on the Republican establishment. But Scozzafava’s defeat and the mounting campaign against Hutchison reveals a fascinating and underreported problem for the Republicans: They will only run women who will say that women should not control their reproductive fates. Although there are many male Republican candidates who easily embrace this position, politically accomplished women who believe in criminal abortion are rare, even in the Republican Party. And the ones who surface are likely to be, well, rogue.

The scene was set the day Hutchison announced her candidacy for the governorship of Texas last January. Just down the street, the incumbent governor, Rick Perry, who has shown no signs of stepping aside, was addressing the Texas Rally for Life. Perry had already started attacking Hutchison for not being anti-abortion enough. A few days later, Sarah Palin stepped in and announced her support for the anti-abortion Perry.

Hutchison’s faint liberalism on this one issue sure took her out of the running for V.P. in 2008. The Republicans could have chosen Senator Hutchison—a sophisticated and well-educated woman who would doubtless have played well on the national stage—but wound up with Sarah Palin. She may be a media darling and a political terror now, but all the polling around the actual election of 2008 reflected that her manifest ignorance and amateurishness played a substantial role in the Republican defeat.

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As the Scozzafava affair reflects, the Republicans could do nothing else. The hostility to women’s liberation is central to the contemporary Republican Party, a party that surged back into power starting in 1968 based on three crucial developments: the conservative ideological revival; the alliance of the party with conservative and orthodox Western religion; and the takeover of—and by—the American South. All three of these forces are hostile to women’s equality. At the birth of the modern conservative revival, conservative intellectual icon Richard Weaver explicitly set out the role of women in the new conservative movement. Women are rooted in nature and intuition, he wrote; they made a terrible mistake when they traded their natural place in a stable hierarchy for a superficial equality with men. In 1971, another of the pillars of the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, Phyllis Schlafly, launched a movement from her living room in St. Louis to STOP, as she put it on countless eight-sided signs, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have put language of sexual equality in the Constitution. And STOP it she did. Years later, Schlafly boasted that she’d defeated the women’s amendment by making the first alliance of conservative Protestants, devout Catholics, and orthodox Jews—a crucial turn of events in the Republican resurgence. When the evangelical Christians decided that politics wasn’t too worldly for them to get involved in, they, too, made an alliance with the Republican Party. Evangelical teachings, which treat the Bible literally, include the Biblical injunction that women must obey their husbands. Evangelicals heavily favor women staying out of the market economy to stay home, and indeed they do disproportionately stay home.

Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy to capitalize on the disaffection from the Democratic Party after the Democrats pushed through the Civil Rights Act linked the Republican Party to the American South. In addition to its racial politics, the South also adhered to a very old-fashioned system of gender roles. Because of its linkage to abolitionism, the original 19th-century women’s suffrage movement had little presence in the South, and the South had ever since lagged behind when it came to the emancipation of women. Of the 36 states necessary for ratification of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment in 1920, only three came from the South. Fewer women from the evangelical communities of the American South work in the market economy than women from anywhere else in the country.

As a result of all these developments, by 2008, the Republican platform endorsed the superiority of a two-parent family with both a mother and a father in the home, affirmed every citizen’s right to apply religious values to public life, enshrined the rights of unborn children, and rejected the U.N. Convention on Women’s Rights.

The Republicans’ problem is complicated, however, because the emergence of the first generation of Republican candidates, right after the feminist revolution, slightly preceded the party’s turn to the right. The prominent and accomplished women of the GOP—Senator Hutchison (66), New Jersey’s former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman (62), Senators Olympia Snowe (61), Susan Collins (57), and the like, tend to be older and more connected to basic feminism (Hutchison was one of the first women to attend law school at the University of Texas, for example). Without exception, these leading female Republicans hold a bunch of modern positions, including supporting women’s control over their own reproduction, e.g., the right to an abortion, that disqualified them when McCain went looking for a woman to put on his ticket for VP.

The transformation of the Republican Party by the rise of conservative, evangelical, and Southern movements disables the Republicans from grooming a new generation of female candidates. For one thing, the fecund, domesticated women they admire are too busy staying home with their children, and as a result there are very few prominent female Republican office-holders (as Palin’s incoherent campaign reflected, it is very hard to be Tracy Flick, from Election, and June Cleaver simultaneously). The only elected female Republican governor (there are two who succeeded governors who resigned) is an outlier—a pro-choice Jewish woman from Hawaii. And Alaska’s young Senator Lisa Murkowski is classified as a moderate and has a mixed record on the all-important abortion litmus test. By contrast, there are 13 female Democratic senators and four elected female Democratic governors. Only one-quarter of the 80 female representatives in the U.S. Congress are Republican; three-quarters are Democrats. Republican Scozzafava’s withdrawal leaves these numbers in place.

Since the 2008 election of an African-American president, with robust support from the growing Hispanic community, commentators have talked a lot about how the Republican Party has become the party of a white, largely Southern, America. There has been much written about Sarah Palin but almost none of it has identified how the core conservative belief system about a woman’s place cuts the Republican Party off from female candidates. Women have voted mostly Democratic since 1992, an outcome partly due to the fact that women voters as a group are less white than male voters. But the Republican ticket carried white women by a margin of only 53 percent to 46 percent in 2008, down two percentage points from 2004, and that was with a woman on the ticket. The conservative beliefs about women’s place confines the national party to male candidates, just as the party’s Southern strategy ultimately cut it off from everyone but whites. Scozzafava, a youngish possible up and comer just effectively joined the Democrats. Unless you count the certifiable outlier, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin is the only one they have left.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, and a columnist at DoubleX.com. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.