McGovern was on to something that is still misunderstood today: Republicans had capitalized upon a strong advantage with anti-feminist white women, most notably in the South. The GOP had wooed these women by dropping its previous support for the Equal Rights Amendment and offering up a new dog-whistle tactic: preaching the politics of “family values.” This advantage helped propel Reagan to the White House and reignited the partisan transformation of the South that had stalled after Richard Nixon’s resignation.
At one time, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment seemed like a foregone conclusion. In fall 1971 and spring 1972, the ERA sailed through the House of Representatives and the Senate by votes of 354 to 24 and 84 to 8. It received such broad bipartisan support because legislators understood that the amendment would create equal opportunities for women should they choose to pursue them.
However, in 1972, activist Phyllis Schlafly launched an anti-feminist crusade, STOP ERA, which reframed this notion of choice. The ERA, Schlafly insisted, would actually require women to put their children in government day care and put themselves on the front lines in warfare. Schlafly depicted feminism as a mandate and presented anti-feminism as a morally superior alternative.
Schlafly’s efforts had a stunning impact. Thirty states had ratified the ERA in the first year of a seven-year window granted by Congress. But as Schlafly’s followers grew in number and volume, they halted this momentum and even sent it careening backward: Over the remaining six years before the original ratification deadline, only five additional states ratified the ERA, leaving it three short of the constitutional requirement for national adoption. Some states even tried to rescind their ratification.
The GOP had supported the ERA for four decades. But as historian Marjorie Spruill meticulously and convincingly recounts, Republican candidates like Reagan came to recognize that Schlafly and her associates had made anti-feminism politically advantageous. This realization helped spur the party to drop its longtime pro-ERA platform plank in 1980 and instead adopt one championing an antiabortion amendment to the Constitution.
Devastated Republican feminists issued dire warnings that these moves would cripple their party. But they were wrong.
Schlafly had successfully organized Southern white, mostly religious women — the very people the GOP needed to recapture the South after Jimmy Carter’s victories there in 1976. Reagan appealed to these same Southern white women not by overtly opposing women’s equality, but by expressing his concern that the ERA would weaken the American family and diminish special protections for women.
Southern white culture had long been a stronghold of traditional gender norms. In theory, the ideal Southern white woman was placed on a pedestal: financially supported, removed from the hardships of public life and protected from dangerous black men she was taught to fear. For poor and working-class white women, the pedestal and its protections were more aspirational than real, but the ideal was nonetheless powerful and pervasive in the South.
Schlafly’s STOP ERA, which stood for Stop Taking Our Privileges, had capitalized upon this cultural norm, persuading Southern white women to reverse their positions on the ERA. In 1976, 64 percent of Southern white women supported the ERA, while 16 percent were opposed. By 1980, however, support had dropped to 42 percent, while opposition swelled to 44 percent — a much more drastic shift than in other regions of the country.
This aspect of the Southern political realignment is often overlooked. One crucial cause of this amnesia emerged in the days after Reagan’s victory. Feminists, terrified that Democrats would abandon the ERA and women’s rights, started championing a single statistic from the exit polling. More women than men had voted for Carter, creating a “gender gap” that had not existed in 1976. To feminists, this number gave Democrats reason to continue to support the ERA and even to consider putting a female vice presidential candidate on the 1984 ticket.
Another data point from the exit polling fueled this argument: More women than men had voted overall. The conflation of these two statistics created a general impression that women leaned Democratic and that Reagan had a “woman problem.”
In truth, however, though Carter did receive more votes from women than from men, Reagan had received more votes overall from both men and women.
Even more distorting, coverage of this new gender gap often ignored significant racial and regional distinctions. Reagan actually won white women by a 52-39 margin, which jumped to 59-34 percent among Southern white women. Women’s perceived preference for Carter really only reflected the way that the president had trounced Reagan among African American women.
This post-election narrative took root in part because the idea that white women, particularly in the South, would not only hand the presidency to the party that opposed the ERA, but that they would do so because it opposed the ERA, was just too hard to accept.
But that was precisely what happened. A table of exit poll data published in the New York Times on Nov. 9, 1980, painted the picture: Women who favored the ERA supported Carter over Reagan 54 percent to 32 percent. But women who opposed the ERA supported Reagan over Carter by the even larger margin of 66 percent to 29 percent. Among those Southern white women to whom Schlafly’s message appealed, anti-ERA voters broke 71 percent to 24 percent for Reagan.
These data points were what McGovern had sensed in interpreting the election results. He understood “there’s a lot of fear of changing sex roles, of new pressures on the family, and men and women alike were threatened by it [the ERA].” To McGovern, “the ‘family’ issue raised by the right wing” was code for forcing women “back into the old orthodox roles.”
Reagan also understood the reality of what had happened, and he reacted by further promoting traditional gender roles and portraying feminists and women’s equality as a threat to the family. In 1982, the ERA fell three states short of ratification, even with an extended deadline. In the end, the ERA failed in every Southern state except Texas and Tennessee (which tried to rescind its vote).
Two years later, feminists’ lobbying secured the Democratic vice presidential slot for Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. But even though Democrats had a woman on the ballot, or perhaps because of it, Reagan increased his margin of victory among white women, particularly Southern white women.
The next time a woman appeared on the Democratic ticket — this time at the top — the problem of the oversimplified notion of a gender gap was even clearer. Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump among nonwhite women and even won white women living outside the South. However, among white women in the states of the former Confederacy, Trump, who was endorsed early on by Phyllis Schlafly, bested Clinton by 25 points, 58 percent to 33 percent.
Courting anti-feminist white women was a critical part of the GOP’s Southern strategy, one often forgotten today, and it has solidified them into an integral component of the Republican base. Their preferences help explain why feminist candidates struggle in the South, why the gender gap has been misunderstood, why the ERA failed and why the 2016 election turned out the way it did. If Democrats hope to build a winning coalition in 2020, anti-feminist white women must be considered distinct not only from women of color, but also from feminist white women both inside the South and beyond its borders.