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The Voting Rights Act of 1965

For my historical event analysis, I have chosen to focus on the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to win strong support from Republican women during the mid-1970s. Despite decades of institutional backing from the Republican Party and the strong and vocal support of First Lady Betty Ford, the ERA was unable to attract clear-cut support from GOP women, many of whom sided with ERA critic Phyllis Schlafly.

In looking at efforts by the national Republican leadership to promote ratification of the ERA, I will pay particular attention to the high-profile advocacy many of the party’s “stars,” including Mrs. Ford. Specifically, I will try to answer the following research question: Why didn’t more Republican women respond to their party’s concerted efforts to build support for passage of the ERA?

The debate over the ERA highlighted the sharp differences between the Republican Party’s conservative and moderate wings. And probably no public figure of the time more clearly personified moderate Republicanism than Betty Ford, whose controversial comments about marijuana, contraception, and premarital sex attracted considerable media attention during her husband’s presidency.

Did Mrs. Ford’s progressive attitudes on these issues, which endeared her to many Democrats and liberals, affect her credibility with Republicans and conservatives? Was the emergence of Phyllis Schlafly as the ERA’s most visible opponent a reflection of grass-roots dissatisfaction with the perceived moderate image of the Ford White House? How did the Republican debate over the ERA reflect the larger Republican fight for the 1976 Presidential nomination between President Gerald Ford and conservative challenger Ronald Reagan?

In researching the impact of Mrs. Ford’s public comments, the first step is to look at the comments themselves. While Mrs. Ford spoke out frequently on controversial topics, her October 1975 interview on 60 Minutes, the widely viewed CBS newsmagazine program, caused a real sensation. A vital primary source, then, would be the transcript of her August 10, 1975 interview with 60 Minutescorrespondent Morley Safer, on file at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library ( In this interview, Mrs. Ford’s comments about abortion and premarital sex generated widespread public commentary.

A fuller picture of Mrs. Schlafly’s emergence as the principal opponent of the ERA—and the philosophical and ideological rationale for her decision to take on the amendment—can be found in her own words. Another important primary source, then, is Schlafly’s critique of modern feminism, The Power of the Positive Woman (1977; New York: Arlington House).

While these primary sources illustrate the public and private thinking of Betty Ford and Phyllis Schlafly, understanding the reaction to their statements and private efforts requires scholarly analysis. One valuable secondary source, then, is ” Competing conceptions of the first ladyship: Public responses to Betty Ford’s 60 Minutes interview” a detailed analysis of the reaction to the 60 Minutes interview by Maryanne Borrelli (2001; Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 3 (September 2001); 397-414). This scholarly article analyzes more than 1,400 letters that Mrs. Ford received after the interview, almost 67 percent of which expressed negative reactions.

Another extremely valuable secondary source is Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism From Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right, by Catherine Rymph (2006; Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press). This book includes an account of Phyllis Schlafly’s decision not to make a public issue of Mrs. Ford’s comments, even as the primary battle between Gerald Ford and Reagan was showing the divisions in the Republican Party.

Based on my research to date, I will try to support the following thesis: Even with the strong support of an extremely popular Republican First Lady, the ERA could overcome neither the divisions within the Republican Party, nor the conservative appeals of Phyllis Schlafly.

I plan to write this historical analysis for > an audience that is already familiar with the history of the ERA, such as a seminar conducted by the National Organization for Women. This is an audience that does not need a great deal of background about the ERA itself, but one that would be interested in new insights into the factors the ultimately led to its defeat.

In writing for this audience, I plan to focus on the larger political divisions within the Republican Party that Mrs. Ford was not able to bridge—but which Mrs. Schlafly was able to take advantage of. Without devoting much time to the specifics of the ERA debate, with which my audience is already quite familiar, I will attempt to place this debate within the larger context of the Ford-Reagan contest, and the ongoing “culture wars” within the Republican Party and the public-at-large.

For this audience, my message will be a clear but perhaps disappointing one: The problem was not that Betty Ford was too controversial to rally Republican women to the cause; it’s that the Republican Party was already too divided to come together behind this or any other issue.

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