Forty years ago, I went to my first political convention as part of the official delegation from Pennsylvania.
It was the Republicans’ “four more years” gathering for President Richard M. Nixon, Watergate was a break-in not linked yet to full-on corruption, and I was 16.
There were six of us pages for our state, photocopying and stapling and running around with stacks of speeches and programs.
I was the youngest page out of 150 at this big Miami Beach shindig, according to my hometown paper, the Lancaster New Era, a fact I had forgotten until I recently found a box of Ann-obilia my mother had saved.
There is extensive news coverage of adventures of me as a page — front-page photos, lengthy features — and I cannot explain why my town’s two daily newspapers needed to flood the zone with these exploits except to say that I was a local girl made good, I guess.
My three children choked with laughter as they read parts out loud, and accused me of being like Tracy Flick, the maliciously ambitious anti-heroine in the movie “Election.” Which I would like to stipulate is, unequivocally, untrue.
It's right there in the papers! I was a “bubbly teen,” “a bubbly miss” and “a blond-haired enthusiast.”
What’s also right there is a snapshot of women’s roles and rights under revision in society — we called it “women’s lib” back then — and the Republican Party’s response to the change underway. I went back through these clips and others as much to learn about the party’s identity shift as to learn about my emerging voice. I’ve been trying for 18 months now to report an answer to this persistent question: “Why are we still talking about birth control and abortion in 2012?”
On the one hand, in the Lancaster Intelligencer, here is a large photograph of a guest of honor at a Republican women’s event. She is “looking pert and pretty” in “a two-piece double-knit pink ensemble accented with a gold necklace” and remaining “poised and cool as she weaved her way among the crowds . . . to answer questions about her family.” She is Mrs. John Eisenhower; her first name is never given.
On the other hand, here is a former Senate candidate, Mrs. Lenore Romney, whose son will accept the RepublicanParty’s presidential nomination Thursday night, applying pressure — genteel, ladylike, white-gloved, yes, but pressure — as part of an effort to get a plank in the platform calling for legal abortion.
Among the pounds of paper I distributed was the platform that did pass, and the 700-word separate section on “equal rights for women” is startling to read now:
“The Administration will . . . continue its strong efforts to open equal opportunities for women, recognizing clearly that women are often denied such opportunities today,” it begins, and then pledges to support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, fight against sex discrimination and for equal pay, and appoint women to positions of greater power, including to the Supreme Court.
For the GOP in 1972, these were not just promises: The ferment and bra-burning of the 1960s were consolidated into real change in the ’70s. The executive and legislative branches already had written historical gains for women into policy and law, and the Supreme Court the next year would make equal job access and the right to abortion the law of the land.
By the time of the convention, the Nixon administration had passed and implemented Title IX, which expanded educational and athletic opportunities for millions of girls and women, and Title X, which made federal funding available for family planning for the first time. That funding, which House Republicans keep trying to strip away from Planned Parenthood, passed the Senate unanimously and the House with broad bipartisan support in 1970.
The Nixon White House required government contractors to use affirmative action to hire women; more women were in management in federal Washington than ever before.
Was I aware of all those political gains during that week in August? Nah.
I was an only child whose grandfather taught her not to throw like a girl and gave her a silver dollar for every A on her report card. I was really, really nosy. I wanted to be a journalist so I could poke around in places you weren’t supposed to go, and ask strangers things that weren’t polite. And nobody told me I couldn’t.
I wasn’t well-connected to rich Republicans. My father was a jazz musician, and my mother ran a theater. We were bohemians, by which I mean we subscribed to the New Yorker but had no money.
We were Republicans because nearly everybody in Lancaster was Republican then, so if you wanted your vote to count, you had to vote in the primary. I wrote a letter to my congressman, and then to a national committeewoman from our town, and then I showed up in Miami Beach.
Memory is the way the mind creates a hierarchy of significance from life’s events, and so it has been revealing to see what I forgot from that week in August of 1972.
I remember the uniform: red, white and blue vest printed with stars and stripes, made of cheap and scratchy, and certainly flammable, fabric, which I wore over a white Qiana shirt, atop a short royal blue accordion-pleated skirt.
I do not remember modeling for the camera that floor-length Nixon skirt, at the summer party of the Women’s Republican Club, where Mrs. John Rockefeller describes “acting as a hostess” during her husband’s ambassadorship in Belgium. I do remember the sleeveless dress I have on that day, because I sewed it myself, and the pink suede cork-platformed shoes I am wearing, because I have always wished I had kept them.
I do not remember South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond “complimenting me” in his unique way, but knowing what I know now, I am very pleased to offer this contemporaneous account of his proclivities:
From the New Era of Aug. 24, 1972, p. 12:
“ ‘Mr. Thurmond looked up and I handed him the message,’ she related.
‘You’re really shapely,’ he said, with a syrupy Southern accent and a twinkle in his eye. ‘Where are you from?’ I told him I was from Pennsylvania, and when I walked away, he patted me on the rear end.”
What was sexual harassment in 1972? A concept that hadn’t been invented. “Welcome” and “unwelcome” conversation was not part of the human relations vocabulary; the shrug of a phrase was “he’s just a dirty old man.”
I remember what I knew not to divulge for publication: that I drove a Lincoln Continental full of probably important Pennsylvanians at 75 mph down Collins Avenue from our hotel in Hollywood, Fla.; that the son of the lieutenant governor of Puerto Rico met me and sent red roses to my hotel room every day and asked me to sail back to the island on the official yacht, all of which I found ridiculous then, and note now that no one has behaved that way to me again; that I stuffed the stars-and-stripes vest and credential in a tote bag and sneaked off to check out the Vietnam War protesters and got tear-gassed with them.
I do remember this the best of all: sweet-talking my way past a Secret Service agent to get into the podium area, without a podium pass, to hand-deliver a note to Henry Kissinger, and then turning down his offer of an autograph.
I remember it because it taught me what I see now as one of the most important lessons of life as a woman: You could be smiley and pushy at the same time. You could slip past the barriers, the literal and figurative ones, at least enough of the time to feel like you were getting somewhere for yourself, and paving a way for others.
If it was exhausting to always be scrapping, to be heard in a lecture of 300, to get a job at a big-city paper as a young, divorced single mother, to run a section or a business, to change social policy, it also was energizing to a lot of women in my generation to fight for those rights without worrying about getting pregnant or having a baby before you were ready. That right seemed just about settled business in 1972, everywhere in America, certainly in both political parties.
Except it wasn’t. And those who were unsettled by that progress are now in control of Lenore Romney’s Republican Party.