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Republican War Against Women

As a behind-the-scenes campaign organizer, a convention delegate, a political strategist, and a co-founder of the Republican women's movement, Tanya Melich has devoted her life to the party of Lincoln and the principles it stands for. Until recently, that is. As a moderate and a woman, Melich pushed within the party to maintain its traditional support for women's equality and individual rights by fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights to keep abortion a private choice. But over the years, she found, women's voices in the party were silenced by male party officials who felt they were getting in the way of a broader strategy. That strategy, argues Melich in her new book The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Line. Laura Fraser talked to Melich about the upcoming election, the GOP, and the politics of meanness.
 
 
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Tanya Melich, whose father was a Utah state senator, has worked for the Republican party for as long as she can remember. As a behind-the-scenes campaign organizer, a convention delegate, a political strategist, and a co-founder of the Republican women's movement, she has devoted her life to the party of Lincoln and the principles it stands for.Until recently, that is. As a moderate and a woman, Melich pushed within the party to maintain its traditional support for women's equality and individual rights by fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights to keep abortion a private choice. But over the years, she found, women's voices in the party were silenced by male party officials who felt they were getting in the way of a broader strategy. That strategy, argues Melich in her new book The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Lines (Bantam Books), has been to court extremists and religious fundamentalists at the expense of women. She details how the GOP used a misogynist strategy of fanning the fears of the women's movement in order to gain the votes of religious fundamentalists and Southern conservatives. The strategy succeeded so well that now the party is dominated by religious extremists, and moderates like Melich are finding themselves out in the cold.The 1992 campaign was so dominated by the religious right that Melich could no longer stomach the political process. A Bush delegate from New York, she turned in her credentials early, and, disgusted with her party, went home and worked instead for Clinton. She says that the extremists in power now, led by Newt Gingrich, have gone so far that they will eventually be the downfall of the party. Moderates like Melich who are leaving the party have not become Democrats, though; for now, they're politically homeless. Laura Fraser talked to Melich about the upcoming election, the GOP, and the politics of meanness.Q: How is it that Republicans, who've always believed that you should keep the government out of your back pocket and out of your bedroom, have allowed anti-choice extremists to take over the party?A: Economic issues are more important to many Republicans. And for many political people, their political party affiliation is similar to the religion they were born into. When the issues change, as they have, it's hard for people to let go of the party. They feel, as I did, that they want to fight from within.We shouldn't even be having a battle over abortion in this country. One of the Republicans philosophies has always been you don't have a law unless you have to have it. You don't need laws saying that a woman has to check with her legislator before she decides whether or not she's going to have a baby.But we pro-choice Republicans kept getting beaten over the head. A lot of Republicans I know will stay and fight it out. I just couldn't go through another cycle. I had to leave the party.Q: George Bush comes across as the real villain in your book.A: He is. This is a man who was considered the leader of a moderate point of view. But he was much more interested in becoming President of the United States; he would do whatever he had to do to get himself to get himself elected. The coalitions that were most valuable to him were the coalitions on the right. He wasn't about to get himself into a battle supporting women's policies.The key turning point in the party was when George Bush was selected to be Reagan's vice president and he capitulated on the issues of the Equal Rights Amendment and women's right to choose. He became a Reaganite through-and-through, and it marked the end of a time when moderate and old-guard party conservatives would support women's issues. We thought if we elected Bush we could make some changes once he was in office. But he moved further and further to the extremes on the social issues.Q: In your book you describe the Republican's war against women as an outgrowth of their racist strategy against civil rights in the '60s.A: The civil rights movement unhinged a lot of people, and made them very fearful of what would happen next. When the women's movement appeared on the scene in the early '70s, it was very easy for Republicans who were looking to pick up votes from Southern Democrats to translate the fear that had come from the backlash to the civil rights movement to the fear that was developing over what the women's movement would mean.They played on that fear very effectively. The first battle was over the ERA. One of the most interesting things about that fight was the partnership between [anti-ERA organizer] Phyllis Schlafly and North Carolina's democratic senator Sam Ervin. As chairman of the senate Watergate hearings, Ervin had an honorable reputation, and his argument that 'ladies should be ladies,' opposing the ERA in order to protect and glorify what he thought was the essence of womanhood, made sense to women who didn't want to give up what they thought were the privileges of being a woman. It became clear to the New Right that as the anti-ERA movement grew, with Schlafly, Ervin, and religious leaders, that it was an effective force to build power.At the same time, the movement to legalize abortion had been moving along since the late '60s. Independently of what was happening in the south, the Catholic Church was organizing in a way it never had before. This opened up another avenue for political recruits.Q: You give Schlafly a lot of credit for turning the Republican Party to the extreme religious right.A: Schlafly, a devout Catholic, turned out to be the one who put together this coalition of southern fundamentalist religious groups, people who had been afraid of integration and civil rights, and Catholics. She's been very, very powerful. She has a strong intellect and a strong sense of what she believes. Her husband was able to provide financially for her to go out and lead a political movement. She also had some experience in the Republican party, and knew how politics works.Q: It's ironic that she's led a dynamic full-time career in order to work to keep women at home. What's the psychology of these religious right-wing women?A: They psychology is that there's a natural order to things, the woman is the bearer of the children, and she obeys her husband. That's what the Bible says, and that's the way it's supposed to be. The approach that the religious right and Schlafly takes is essentially medieval. Schlafly and the other women go out and participate because they're going to protect the way of life that they believe in. Once it's protected, they can go back home.Q: Is that true of the Republican freshman congresswomen?A: It's my impression that's the case. Of the eight who were elected, Sue Kelly, who's a pro-choice Republican from New York, is an exception. Enid Waldholtz is a corporate lawyer who acts like a feminist, not like someone who, when the day is over, is going to go back home for good. But when she had her five-hour news conference she talked that way.Q: Don't politicians on the extreme right understand the economic reality that most women have to work?A: Nationally, the Republican party favors some women over others. The party of Lincoln started out as an egalitarian party. Everyone was equal and you were judged on your merit, and you weren't going to pass laws saying some people got more favors than others. But now you have a point of view that says that some women are more favorable than others. The woman who stays home is a better woman the women who goes out to work, and the woman who supports the pro-life position is best of all.There has been some recognition by the New Right that some women have to work. The next question is how to help families, with public versus private finance of childcare. Gingrich's people think the problem can only be solved through private sources. Ronald Reagan was talking about that in '80 and it hasn't happened, and it won't happen because the problem is too big.Q: It's ironic that while the male Republican candidates espouse the family values rhetoric, most of them are divorced. James Carville has said he hopes to make an issue of that in the campaign.A: You mean they're hypocrites? Sure. Again, it's a medieval view of the world, male privilege.Q: Does someone like Newt Gingrich really believe that the nation is disintegrating because women are working outside the home and leaving their families, or is that just strategy?A: I wish I knew. All we have to go on are the actions we've seen over the years. His first campaign was based on a misogynist strategy, and he's still misogynist. But I don't believe, given that he's a student of history, that his base of philosophy stopped in the middle ages. He'll probably change his stance on reproductive rights for pragmatic reasons, unlike some of the other people in his coalition.The effect of his budget, regardless, has been devastating to women. All of the budget bills had anti-abortion riders. His attitudes toward poor women, and his unwillingness to support child welfare programs, are clearly misogynist. Who takes care of the kids in these programs? Women. The Meals on Wheels programs -- who are most of the elderly? Again, women. The list goes on and on. The programs they're fighting over take very, very modest amounts of the total budget. But they make a huge difference to women.Q: Aren't these anti-woman policies starting to take a toll on the party?A: The choice issue was definitely one of the reasons why Bush lost in T92.Q: Doesn't that give a message to Republicans running now?A: They'll say that they won in '94. They ran NRA, right-to-life candidates, and they won the congress for the first time since the '50s. Why shouldn't they continue in the same direction they're going?I'd say first of all, a lot of people didn't vote, second the women's vote was a lot smaller than the men's vote, and third, people weren't quite sure what they were getting. They wanted change, but not the kind of change that meant they couldn't get a student loan for their kid to go to college, or that the money the federal government was giving them to have their elderly parent in a nursing home was going to be cut in half.Q: What do you think about moderate Republicans, like Christine Whitman, who are pro-choice but campaign for people who are anti-choice?A: When you're elected to be governor of a state under a particular party there's a certain amount of loyalty you have to hold to your party. That's the traditional fight between principle and expediency that goes on all the time.Q: Will there be a big blood-letting among the Republicans at the convention in San Diego?A: The conflicts in the party right now are between the New Right/religious right people and the old right, which is Bob Dole. The moderates are no longer important in the party. So far, Dole has gone along with whatever the religious right wants in order to get the nomination. The question is, if he gets the delegates, what does he have to give away between April and August in order to get everybody together?'96 is going to be a very significant election. Because if we end up with someone who has a viewpoint like Newt Gingrich is in the White House, wow. Think of what happened to women and to the pro-choice movement under George Bush, and then imagine what would happen under Gingrich.Q: You hoped Colin Powell would run?A: Absolutely. Then we would've had someone we could've worked with, a leader with whom we could've fought these issue out in the party.Q: A lot of people don't remember a Republicanism before Reagan. To them, the party is an extreme right-wing party.A: That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I felt that my kids' generation needs to know what it used to be.The party has veered so far off the center that they can't continue like this. They have to move back toward the center. If they don't, we'll be seeing another party.Q: Why has Hillary Clinton been such a lightning rod for GOP abuse? In your book you compared her with the treatment Betty Ford got for being outspoken.A: It's very difficult for male politicians to deal with strong first ladies. Nancy Reagan was criticized, too. This has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans. It has to do with gender politics.