A history of the federal push to bolster women’s rights from successive presidents since John F. Kennedy—and the resulting clashes with traditional conservative constituencies.
With the culmination of the feminist political agenda in 1977 at Houston’s National Women’s Conference, there was a swift conservative reaction, led by Illinois political activist Phyllis Schlafly and her organized minions. In this highly detailed but well-focused account, Spruill (History/Univ. of South Carolina; New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States, 1993, etc.) reminds us that in the late 1970s, there were two women’s movements. The first, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, got its impetus from federally sponsored programs like the Kennedy Commission (1963), which revealed “the inequities in public institutions, and the vulnerable situation of homemakers.” Furthermore, writes the author in her assiduously researched narrative, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became “one of the most important pieces of legislation in advancing gender equity, the basis for many subsequent feminist victories.” On the other hand, more conservative and religious women became alarmed by the tilt toward “liberation” from home and hearth as well as the determination by “libbers” to work alongside men, countenance abortion, and, shockingly, love each other. (The support of lesbianism would rive even the most liberal feminist agenda.) For the feminists, the move to become a party with real political clout occurred with the election of Bella Abzug to Congress in 1971 and the forming of the National Women’s Political Caucus around the leadership of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and others. As women made staggering inroads into government agencies and other areas under the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (largely thanks to his wife, Betty), the anti-feminists staged a backlash by blocking the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 (publicly funded child care) as the “horrifying first step on the slippery slope toward a godless government invasion of the family.”
There are countless kernels of amazing achievement and courage throughout this jam-packed, engaging history.