One Year After the Women’s Marches: Lessons for the Left from the History of the Right

15631Today we have a guest post from Stacie Taranto, Associate Professor of History at Ramapo College of New Jersey and author of Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York. Taranto’s award-winning book pushes back against predominant narratives of recent political history by positioning New York State as a central battleground in the popularization of conservatism over the course of the 1970s—and by placing women at the forefront of the story. Taranto investigates the role that middle-class, mostly Catholic women on Long Island and in surrounding suburban counties played both in the development of conservatism in New York State and in the national shift toward a conservative politics of “family values.” Here, she reflects on what this story can tell us about the role of women in politics as we approach the one-year anniversary of last winter’s historic women’s marches this weekend.

It has been a year since the record-breaking women’s marches across the nation (and globe) on January 21, 2017, a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. The past year has been alternately frustrating and exhilarating—at times feeling, oddly enough, like a digital-age allegory on the left to political developments on the right in the 1970s that I wrote about in Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York.

The book focused on the role that (white) first-generation suburban Catholic homemakers played in the Republican Party’s embrace of anti-feminist, “family values” rhetoric and policies. Just as the women had settled in the suburbs of New York City and attained their version of the American dream, which included staying at home full time unlike many of their Depression-era mothers, they faced a powerful modern feminism that seemed antithetical to their life choices (despite feminists’ best efforts to prove otherwise). As feminists advocated for more educational and professional opportunities for women, these Catholic suburbanites saw it as a personal affront that implied that homemaking was not the coveted prize they viewed it to be. They opposed other feminist policies as well, chiefly legalized abortion, which offended them both as devout Catholics and because it seemed to devalue their maternal identities and obligations.

Throughout the 1970s, the women created a viable grassroots politics centered on nuclear families, heterosexual marriage, and traditional gender roles—which led to a partnership with conservative Republicans. The women realized that core conservative Republican goals could stymie feminist aims. Lowering taxes, for instance, would both curb Medicaid funding for abortion and make it less likely that a second income (their own) would be needed as the nation plummeted into recession in those years.

Conservative Republicans were equally anxious to align with the organizations the women had created in the voter-rich suburbs of New York City. They hoped that doing so would enable them to marginalize their party’s more dominant moderate wing, which—like the Democratic Party the women had grown up supporting—had embraced modern feminist proposals. Alliances like this helped move the New York Republican Party rightward at the same time that the national party was undergoing a similar transformation.

In other words, organizing at the grassroots level can compel the two major parties to shift in an effort to secure votes. Recent attempts on both sides of the political spectrum have sought to do so—from the Tea Party and #MAGA crowd on the right to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the women’s marches, and #MeToo on the left.

After protesting in New York City last January 21, I joined a group that was formed in the outlying suburbs to promote progressive causes such as immigrants’ rights, equal pay for women, and related objectives outlined by the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington. Our agenda differs greatly from that in the book. Instead of plotting to outlaw legal abortion, we strive to expand and protect it. Both efforts, however, center on how to mobilize local constituencies in ways that lead to meaningful political shifts across the country.

I frequently find myself putting a modern spin on tactics described in my research. In the 1970s, activists borrowed friends’ Roladex cards and mailed form letters to their contacts. We can accomplish the same by sharing information on sites like Facebook and encouraging our online friends to do the same.

Political organizing is a lot simpler in the internet age, but the more things change, the more they also stay the same. The women’s marches last year were almost entirely planned and advertised over social media. But tweeting, sharing petitions online, marching, and even meeting “in real life” is not enough. It is still imperative to demonstrate that there is a voting constituency behind your politics.

One of the best ways to exert political muscle is to earn votes in the electoral arena. I wrote about homemakers on Long Island who formed the Right to Life Party after New York legalized abortion in 1970. The women began running candidates for local, state, and national office—not because they hoped or expected to win—but to demonstrate the existence of a viable anti-abortion swing vote, particularly in districts where contests were typically only won by a small margin. Doing so enabled them to move expedient politicians into espousing anti-abortion and related “family values” positions in order to secure crucial votes in tight races.

Today, there are signs that the progressive causes promoted by the women’s marches have support in the electoral arena. Last January, veteran political operatives Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto, for example, used social media to launch Run for Something, an organization that gives first-time progressive political candidates the tools to compete in the often daunting and foreign world of politics. In 2017, the group backed 72 candidates, many of whom were women and minorities. More than 30 of these candidates won elective office across 14 states. It is tantalizing to think about how similar guidance would have benefitted the political neophytes I documented in the 1970s, when the thought of having expert advice just a few clicks away was unimaginable.

The 2018 midterms and beyond will be a test for the left’s grassroots response to Donald Trump’s presidency, but one thing is certain: online organizing has been an important supplement to, but not a replacement for, timeless fundamentals like getting out the vote. Profound political change occurs from the bottom up, when those in control are forced to bend to the will of the voting public—or be cast aside in favor of a new generation of leaders.

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