GOP Leader, Feminist Mary Crisp Dies at 83

Staff and Wire Reports
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mary Dent Crisp, 83, who was driven from the leadership of the Republican Party in 1980 after publicly assailing its opposition to abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, died of complications from a stroke March 24 at her home in Phoenix. She also had Parkinson's disease.

Ms. Crisp, who worked her way up from grass-roots volunteer to co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee in 1977, was forced out three years later when she challenged the party's anti-abortion platform and condemned its abandonment of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Republicans had supported for four decades.

"Although our party has presented the outward appearance of vibrant health, I'm afraid we are suffering from serious internal sickness," she told a shocked platform committee. "Now we are . . . about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes."

Her remarks put her in direct conflict with presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, who chastised his party's highest-ranking woman on national television, saying she "should look to herself and see how loyal she's been to the Republican Party for quite some time."

Ms. Crisp -- who by then had spent almost two decades working for the party, mostly in unpaid positions -- was reportedly stung by Reagan's rebuke. The next day she announced that she was leaving the convention.

A month later, she signed on as campaign chief for John B. Anderson, the Illinois congressman who ran for president as an independent and finished a distant third after Reagan and President Jimmy Carter.

She knew the end of her tenure was coming with Reagan's nomination as the Republican candidate and the increasing activism of the party's right wing. As various factions struggled for control of the party, Ms. Crisp suspected she was being bugged. She heard beeping sounds on her telephone line at the Shoreham Hotel, where she lived, and on her office phone at party headquarters.

The news that electronic experts found a "magnetic field" and a suspect wire in the wall electrified political Washington, which well remembered the Nixon administration's wiretapping of its political enemies. After a seven-month investigation, D.C. police determined that the suspicious wire at her office was a leftover from an interoffice bell system and that the noise heard through the wire came from its contact with water pipes.

Despite the perception that she had defected from the party, Ms. Crisp remained a Republican. She also continued to fight for women's rights, particularly abortion, because to do otherwise, she said in a 1996 interview with the Orange County Register, "would be to turn my back on everything I learned about being a Republican -- things like justice, equality, liberty and personal rights."

She worked for feminist organizations such as the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Abortion Rights Action League. She was a co-founder of the Republican National Coalition for Choice, which fought to develop an abortion-rights plank for the platform at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

That effort failed, despite the support of conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater, who said in a letter made public just before the convention that the election would "go down in a shambles" if the party did not soften its stand against abortion rights.

Ms. Crisp was born in Allentown, Pa., and graduated in 1946 from Oberlin College with a degree in botany. She later did graduate work in political science at Arizona State University.

In 1948, she married William Crisp, a physician. They divorced in 1976.

Ms. Crisp began her political career in Arizona as a Goldwater supporter in the 1960s. She worked precincts, became a deputy registrar, then moved up local Republican ranks to become county and then state vice chairwoman.

In 1972, she was elected to the Republican National Committee. She was reelected in 1976 and, as committee secretary, was seen on national television calling the roll at the party's convention in Kansas City, Mo.

The following year, she became party co-chairwoman. In 1978, she was reelected to the post, defeating a challenge by Reagan supporters to replace her.

From 1984 until the mid-1990s, Ms. Crisp worked as director of a Washington-based political action committee, Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan group concerned about the economic effects of the arms race.

Ms. Crisp lived in Washington for 28 years until returning to Arizona in 2005.

Survivors include her companion, William Taylor of Phoenix; three children, William Crisp, Barbara Crisp and Anne Crisp, all of Phoenix; a brother, Richard Dent of Schnecksville, Pa.; a sister, Jesse Dent Cook of Arlington; and two grandchildren.

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