Most histories of modern American politics tell a similar story: that the Sunbelt, with its business friendly environment, right-to-work laws, and fierce spirit of frontier individualism, provided the seedbed for popular conservatism. Stacie Taranto challenges this narrative by positioning New York State as a central battleground. In 1970, under the governorship of Republican Nelson Rockefeller, New York became one of the first states to legalize abortion. By 1980, however, conservative, antifeminist Republicans with broad suburban appeal—symbolized by figures such as Ronald Reagan—had usurped power from these so-called Rockefeller Republicans. What happened during the intervening decade?
In Kitchen Table Politics, Taranto investigates the role that middle-class, mostly Catholic women played both in the development of conservatism in New York State and in the national shift toward a conservative politics of "family values." Far from Albany, a short train ride away from the feminist activity in New York City, white, Catholic homemakers on Long Island and in surrounding suburban counties saw the legalization of abortion in the state in 1970 as a threat to their hard-won version of the American dream. Borrowing tactics from church groups and parent-teacher associations, these women created the New York State Right to Life Party and organized against several feminist initiatives, including defeating an effort to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution in 1975.
These self-described "average housewives," Taranto argues, were more than just conservative shock troops; instead, they were inventing a new, politically viable conservatism centered on the heterosexual traditional nuclear family that the GOP's right wing used to broaden its electoral base. Figures such as activist Phyllis Schlafly, New York senator Al D'Amato, and presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan viewed the Right to Life Party's activism as offering a viable model to defeat feminist initiatives and win family values votes nationwide. Taranto gathers archival evidence and oral histories to piece together the story of these homemakers, whose grassroots organizing would shape the course of modern American conservatism.
Stacie Taranto is Associate Professor of History at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
"Taranto takes us into the daily lives, subjective experiences, and political activities of women whose import in reshaping the political history of the late twentieth century has not been appreciated. This book traces how and why, between the 1960s and 1980, these women were transformed from apolitical homemakers into activists . . . Taranto considers with empathy and insight the ways that this group of women felt about and responded to the changes in their world. Explaining how these women's subjective feelings of being disrespected became mobilized into a grassroots movement that shaped the realignment of political parties seems particularly important today."—The Journal of American History
"With Kitchen Table Politics, Stacie Taranto will change how we think about the culture wars and reorient our understanding of the Reagan era."—Michelle Nickerson, Loyola University Chicago
"Kitchen Table Politics makes significant contributions to our understanding of the rise of conservatism, the realignment of American political parties, the importance of gender politics to American political history, the nuances of grassroots activism, and the relevance of state-level politics to national politics."—Catherine E. Rymph, University of Missouri
Winner of the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Arline Custer Memorial Award