How feminists became Democrats

The main focus of conservatives’ opposition to Crisp was her outspokenness on women’s rights. Her patron at the RNC, Mary Louise Smith, had managed to serve as the party’s first female chairwoman without controversy despite a reputation as, in one profiler’s words, an “ardent feminist.” But in the years since Smith took the reins in 1974, a powerful antifeminist movement had grown in coalition with other elements of the New Right. When Crisp, a member of President Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women, spoke out for abortion rights, federal support for childcare, and redressing gender inequities in Social Security, or against job discrimination, those movement activists listened.

The Equal Rights Amendment was the key symbolic issue around which feminist and antifeminist forces mobilized for a fight in the mid to late 1970s, and Crisp’s pro-ERA advocacy galvanized conservative opposition to an intensity that Smith’s had not just a few years earlier. The National Women’s Conference, set to take place in honor of International Women’s Year, or IWY, in Houston in 1977, became a proving ground for both anti-ERA and antiabortion forces—ultimately marking, in historian Marjorie Spruill’s words, an “important turning point … in the evolution of American political culture” itself.

That March, Phyllis Schlafly, the powerful, shrewd leader of STOP ERA and the Eagle Forum, launched a new initiative called the IWY Citizens’ Review Committee. The project mobilized social and religious conservatives to participate in state delegate-selection conferences and to work to elect their own as delegates. A quarter of the Houston delegates ended up being conservatives.