After appearing on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) made headlines and spurred double-takes with her claim that it is the Republican party — not the Democratic party — that is fighting for women’s rights.
“It is Republicans that have led the fight for women’s equality,” she responded to a question about Republican opposition to equal pay. “Go back through history, and look at who was the first woman to ever vote, elected to office, go to Congress, four out of five governors.”
If we’re going back through history as Blackburn implores us to do, she’s right. Historically, the Republican party was the stronghold for women’s activists in the early 20th century. But as the two parties essentially switched ideological places from 1970-1973, feminists lost favor with the Republican party. It’s been downhill ever since.
For the first third of the 20th century, the Democratic party, a stronghold in the southern states, was a consistently stalwart foe of any sort of racial progress. The south had a virtual veto over the Democratic Presidential nominee because of the strict convention rules that required a two-thirds majority vote for any candidate.
It is also true that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Republican party was more welcoming for feminists.
Feminist scholar Jo Freeman has exhaustively documented the history of Republican feminists and their ultimate demise. The GOP endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1940 (four years before the Democrats), only to back away from the endorsement four years later, but the first three American Presidents to endorse the ERA were all Republicans — Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford.
But as the Democratic party slowly came to embrace the Civil Rights movement, the southern states essentially switched their collective allegiance to the Republican party, ushering in a more traditional, conservative Republican party than existed previously. The Republican Presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, an ardent foe of Civil Rights and progressivism in the Republican party, marked a decisive shift in the trajectory of the two parties. 1964 also marked the first year that women were more likely to vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate, signaling the beginning of the pervading presidential gender gap in favor of the Democratic party. It has remained that way ever since the Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980.
So what happened? Well, simply put, the New Right happened. Though initially the New Right was split on women’s issues (some even favored abortion rights and the ERA), they quickly realized the political power of social conservatives who had abandoned the Democratic party as it moved towards racial and gender justice. In order to appeal to disenchanted conservative Democrats, the Republican party trapped itself in a self-imposed ideological jail of religious fundamentalism and extreme conservatism, one from which today’s GOP cannot seem to escape.
Today’s Republican party is basically the embarrassing fanatic uncle of the Republican party of the early 20th century. They have become overtaken by a rabid, radical fringe, one that opposes every single aspect of women’s equality, from abortion and contraception access to equal pay, from access to affordable healthcare to a living wage.
What Rep. Marsha Blackburn and other Republicans are banking on by peddling the Republican past as indicative of their present is that no one bothers to pay any attention to the absolutely atrocious record of the Republican party on women’s issues in recent memory, particularly in the last decade. Rather than attempting to beat back the Democratic claims of a “War on Women” by citing history, the Republican party would do well to actually enact some of the current policies they deceptively claim to champion.
There isn’t a single women’s rights issue that serves as a bragging right for today’s GOP.
Equal pay? Nope. In 2009, only three Republicans in the House voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extends the time period under which women can sue their employers for pay discrimination. Earlier this month, Republicans in the Senate successfully filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act, which makes it easier for women to sue their employers for discriminatory pay practices based on gender. Just this week, longtime conservative champion Phyllis Schlafly wrote an op-ed in defense of unequal pay, arguing that women will have a harder time finding a husband if they are paid fairly for their work.
Reproductive rights? Laughable. State legislatures dominated with Republicans have ushered in the most dramatic attack on reproductive rights that we’ve seen since abortion was legalized nationwide in 1973. From 2011-2013, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted in the U.S. The U.S. House of Representatives passed an unconstitutional 20 week abortion ban with 222 Republican votes and only 6 Democratic votes. At the same time, former Arkansas Governor and past Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee claims that access to free birth control indicates that women can’t control their libidos and rely on “Uncle Sugar” to feed their addiction to contraception.
Ending domestic violence? Not a chance. In the House of Representatives, 160 Republicans voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which was expanded to include Native American, immigrant, and LGBT victims of domestic violence. In the Senate, all 22 nays were cast by Republican men. Not a single Democrat in either chamber voted against it.
This is not to demonstrate that the Democrat party is flawless on women’s rights, because they are absolutely not. But for the GOP to claim that it is the party of women’s equality is not only utterly laughable — it’s offensive to women’s intelligence.
The GOP is playing a patronizing game of smoke-and-mirrors by harkening back to their progressive past while simultaneously stifling any sort of progress for American women in the 21st century, hoping that we won’t notice. But women, especially women of color, do notice. A majority of Americans feel that the GOP is out of touch with and does not care for the concerns of American women, which is why Rep Marsha Blackburn has been sent out as the woman ambassador of her party to make this ludicrous claim in the first place.
The only way to honestly claim that the Republican party represents feminists who are dedicated to women’s equality is to refuse to move past 1964. Unfortunately, that seems all too appropriate for today’s GOP.
Lauren Rankin is a feminist writer and activist. Her work has appeared at publications such as Salon, RH Reality Check and TruthOut. Currently a graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, she focuses on reproductive politics and the political use of sexual shame. Follow her on twitter at@laurenarankin.