Women were once Republicans. In this centennial year of women’s suffrage, it is interesting to see what a difference a century can make.
In 1919 thousands of women demonstrators converged on the White House demanding Democratic President Woodrow Wilson withdraw his opposition to women’s suffrage. Among those arrested was a young suffragist who made national news by chaining herself to the White House fence and being extricated with bolt cutters. She was Hazel Hunkins of Billings, Montana.
After Wilson grudgingly switched his position, enough Democrats joined an overwhelming majority of Congressional Republicans to send the proposed 19th Amendment to the states for ratification. Of the 36 of 48 states necessary to amend the Constitution, 28 with majority Republican legislatures did so, and with 8 controlled by Democrats, ratification occurred just three months before the 1920 election. After 141 years of U.S. history, women got the right to vote. (Native American women and men had to wait until 1924.)
Democrats’ fears of women voters also came true in 1920, when women contributed heavily to a massive Republican victory. Women’s preference for Republicans continued to varying degrees until at least the 1960’s.
In 1972 a Democratic Congress passed and proposed to the states, the 27th, or Equal Rights Amendment, which reads “Equality of rights . . . shall not be denied . . . on account of sex.” Under the primary sponsorship of Democratic Representative Pat Regan of Billings, Montana was the 32nd state to ratify in 1974.
Attempts to rescind (take back) Montana’s ratification began in the 1975 Legislature, and again in 1977. But largely with the votes of majority Democrats, both were defeated. In one of those sessions Phyllis Schlafly, charismatic Illinois political activist, came to Montana at the invitation of former first lady Betty Babcock, to personally lead the rescission forces.
The last battle over the ERA in Montana occurred when shrewd and respected Republican Senator Jack Galt led the rescission forces in 1979. He was my good friend. I had emerged as one of the legislative leaders against rescission, but that was when disagreeing legislators remained friends. I heard that Jack had a letter in specific support of his bill from former Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat hero of Watergate fame. I knew support for the ERA was in the Republican National Platform, so I called the Republican National chair, former Senator Bill Brock of Tennessee, who readily gave me a strong statement in support for the ERA and against rescission. After my friend used the Ervin quote in floor debate I was able to counter with my quote from Brock. Jack and I had dinner together that night.
The 1979 effort to rescind passed the Senate, but was decisively killed by House Democrats, thus ending the ERA war in Montana. The issue, however recently resurfaced after Virginia became the 38th state of the 50 now necessary to ratify. But, Virginia’s action occurred 28 years after the Congressionally imposed 1982 deadline for ratification. The U.S. House has just passed legislation to retroactively eliminate the time limit. However, even in the view of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that is probably unconstitutional; but it is certain not to even be considered in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
Of ongoing significance is that women are a growing majority of voters. In the time of Trump, women now overwhelmingly identify with the Democrats. Probably to the long-term detriment of Republicans, there may soon not be enough grouchy old white men and angry young white men to save the once Grand Old Republican Party from a bleak and weakened future of political impotence.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.
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