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Why the GOP Should Have Listened to Mary Crisp

May 7, 2007

Mary Dent Crisp’s obituary appeared in the New York Times on April 15. Three days later the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision overturned core tenets of Roe v. Wade. The juxtaposition of these two events was a fitting reminder of how the political landscape has changed since Crisp’s finest hour in Detroit at the 1980 Republican National Convention.  Mary Crisp had been Republican national co-chair, one of the party’s highest honors. The Detroit convention nominated Ronald Reagan for president and with his election the Republican Party turned away from its moderate-progressive roots. Today the party of George W. Bush is in free fall, disorganized and confused about how and what it stands for. Mary was on the losing end of the battle in 1980, but her legacy remains strong. A loyal team player, she started her political career in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. She took the traditional route to the top of Republican ranks, from precinct captain on to the national stage. Crisp easily embraced the goals of the feminist movement—although she was civilized and refined, not one of those “pushy, aggressive feminists,” in the distinctions of that time. In 1972, she was appointed to the Arizona Status of Women Commission around the same time as her friend, Sandra Day O’Connor, was serving in the Arizona State Senate. The 1976 Republican platform backed the Equal Rights Amendment and, despite press reports to the contrary, took a “big tent” approach on abortion, acknowledging that Republicans were split on the issue. The document’s key phrase sent a mixed signal—typical of a party’s attempt at compromise—favoring a public dialogue on abortion while supporting efforts of those who wanted to outlaw it. Crisp took the platform’s words literally. As national co-chair, she tirelessly traveled the country, recruiting women into the GOP while she championed the ERA. A woman, she said, must have the choice to decide about abortion. As a consequence of her leadership, the number of Republican women officeholders increased to an historic high. She was building a female constituency for the Republican Party. New Right leaders, who were implementing a backlash strategy to win anti-choice, anti-ERA Democrats for Reagan, vehemently opposed her efforts.  Reagan was becoming the assumed nominee, and Mary was sending the wrong message. Crisp’s office at the national Republican headquarters was bugged.  Her budget was cut even as she worked to prepare for the party’s convention in Detroit. When New Right Reaganites ridiculed her, her friends within the Republican establishment—sensing where the wind was blowing—did not defend her. Yet she continued to speak out for women, and while campaigning in Illinois, a key state for ERA ratification, she praised John Anderson’s support for the amendment. Former Republican Anderson was now mounting an Independent campaign for president, although he still had delegates pledged to vote for him in Detroit. Reagan operatives called Crisp disloyal, and the national GOP chairman fired her. She was stripped of her duties and told she would have no place at the convention. Her 38-year old love affair with the Republican Party was over. A woman of lesser courage would have disappeared from public view. Mary fought back. She went to Detroit to address the platform committee. There, she excoriated the party for dropping the ERA, warning it was “about to bury the rights of over l00 million American women under a heap of platitudes.” Women around the country heard her strong voice and remembered. Some Reagan delegates booed.  They were glad to be rid of her. With the New Right Reaganites in charge, the convention dropped the party’s 40-year commitment to the ERA and called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. In the second year of the new president’s first term, the ERA died. Reagan launched the strategy to overturn Roe by appointing Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court, even as he unwittingly appointed Sandra Day O’Connor. The New Right did not expect her to be sympathetic to the reproductive choices of women. Crisp continued to champion women’s rights, and in l989, co-founded a national organization of pro-choice Republicans to fight for Roe. It opposed the first President Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. A few years later, she was forced to relinquish leadership and the organization foundered. At the 1996 and 2000 conventions, the robust political challenge to the New Right characterized by Crisp degenerated into a public relations strategy to attract women voters. After working for George W. Bush’s re-election, the organization remained neutral when he appointed John Roberts to the high court but found the courage to oppose Samuel Alito. It was too little, too late. Five Reagan-Bush appointees delivered for Republican fundamentalists on April 18. The New Right’s coalition of backlash politics is falling apart under the weight of its bigotry and greed. Many of the women who heard Mary Crisp’s message left the Republican Party. Whatever their formal party registration, they are one of the reasons why Democratic candidates have an edge with women voters. These women are Mary Crisp’s legacy.