I recently sat down with Stacie Taranto to discuss her new book, Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York. The book is a case study of New York State politics in the 1970s that shows how conservative “family values” rhetoric and policies became ascendant in the Republican Party. Taranto focuses on the role that (white) suburban Catholic homemakers played in this process. Below are some excerpts from our wide-ranging and timely interview.
Michelle: Can you tell us about what first interested in you in conservative women and why you decided to focus on the suburban counties of New York City? Why, in other words, is the story of conservative suburban women important to understanding modern sexual politics in the US?
Stacie: I first became interested in the origins of conservative family values politics while canvassing door to door for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 — in what the press dubbed the “family values election.” I was based in Rhode Island, where I encountered many women like those I went on to write about: northern suburban Catholic women whose opposition to legal abortion and other tenets of modern feminism led them from the Democratic Party (which has backed legal abortion and other feminist policy aims since the 1970s) and toward the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
In the decades after World War II, the women became first-generation middle-class suburban homemakers. Policies such as the G.I. Bill — which enabled white men like their husbands to access higher education and affordable home loans — lifted families like theirs out of the urban working class. The women’s attendant ability to stay at home full time and raise children, unlike many of their own mothers, was an important marker of having attained the “American dream.”
But just as they achieved middle-class status, modern feminist movements sprung up around the women — led, in part, by Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, a self-styled fellow housewife from the suburbs of New York City. As feminists advocated for more educational and professional opportunities for women, these Catholic suburbanites saw it as a personal affront that implied that homemaking was not the coveted prize they viewed it to be. Legal abortion, too, not only offended them as devout Catholics (their church called it murder), but it seemed to devalue their maternal identities and obligations.
The women soon realized that supporting core conservative Republican aims could stymie feminist goals. Lowering taxes, for instance, would both curb Medicaid funding for abortion and make it less likely that a second income (their own) would be needed as the nation plummeted into recession in the 1970s.
Conservatives had been a minority faction within the GOP, which had been ruled for decades (in New York and across the nation) by moderates such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Rockefeller’s wing supported modern feminist proposals such as legal abortion, which was deemed consistent with a Republican belief in individual rights. But because the suburban counties that the women had organized comprised a quarter of the state’s vote by 1980, conservatives were able to capture control of the GOP and win elections by partnering with them over shared antifeminist (family values) priorities.
Michelle: One of the most interesting dimensions of the activists you write about is their Catholicism. You show us that the church shaped more than their opposition to abortion. What was Vatican II and why was it so important to this story of conservative sexual politics?
Stacie: From 1962 through 1965, two thousand (male) church leaders from across the globe met in Rome at the Second Vatican Council (dubbed Vatican II). They hoped to update the church in order to compete with the distractions of modern life, as well as make the Catholic agenda more attractive to laypeople.
The reforms approved at Vatican II significantly altered or eliminated weekly and even daily religious practices, adding an undue burden upon the Catholic homemakers I studied. As women focused on the home, they had to contend with dietary guidelines issued at Vatican II. They also were expected to channel family members into new parish groups and teach them how to behave at the radically different, more participatory Sunday Mass. After these dislocations caused by Vatican II, the women were sensitive to anything that similarly threatened to alter everyday family life, as they came to believe most feminist proposals would do.
The women were also in a far better position to push back against feminist priorities after Vatican II. It was not simply that these women mobilized against legal abortion (which then led them to oppose other tenets of modern feminism) because their church said that abortion was murder. The women may never have gotten involved in politics if Vatican II had not encouraged the growth and participation of parish groups. A current events group attended by homemakers at a church on Long Island, for instance, grew into the New York State Right to Life Party, as like-minded Catholic women learned about efforts to legalize abortion in the state and formed a separate group to try and stop it.
Michelle: This study is rich with insight into conservatism in this period. Can you think of other parts of the country where we might find a similar recipe of religion, gender, and sexual politics in modern America?
Stacie: I don’t know of a parallel example in this time period, which is why a case study of New York state politics in the 1970s was so compelling. I would, however, expect to find a similar dynamic anywhere that you have the following three conditions that I observed in my research.
First, I would look for the presence of strong movements that aim to challenge heteronormative ideas about gender and the family (such as feminist or LGBTQ activism) in close proximity to people who feel deeply committed to preserving the so-called traditional family for religious, economic, or other such reasons.
Second, political shifts occur when there is a readily accessible way to organize opposition into a political movement. The antifeminist activists that I write about tapped into the vast and newly expanded suburban and Catholic networks around them to do so.
Finally, I would look for the existence of a fractured party system, often with a marginal force within a major party looking to expand its base (as conservative Republicans in New York were looking to do in the 1970s after decades of moderate GOP rule).
These three elements could just as likely force a political migration from the right to the left over issues of gender and sexuality. Today, for example, we see grassroots movements in North Carolina rising up to oppose recent legislative attempts to curb LGBTQ rights in that state. These forces have not made any substantial gains yet, but they could significantly alter state party politics down the line (shifting the Democratic Party leftward, as opposed to the rightward shift within the GOP that I observed).
Michelle: Tell us about the oral histories you did for this study. Can you describe some surprises or themes that resonated from these oral history encounters?
Stacie: The project would not have been possible without conducting oral histories with women involved in antifeminist causes in New York in the 1970s. These interviews often led people to hand over helpful documents that were tucked away for decades in their basements and attics.
I went about looking for women to interview by reaching out to the best known antifeminist leader in America in the 1970s: Phyllis Schlafly. To my surprise, Schlafly agreed to talk to me (this was in January 2007). The majority of our interview was useless, as she repeated well-worn talking points from her old newsletters, all of which I had read. At the end, however, she consulted the mailing list for her conservative Eagle Forum organization and gave me the names and current addresses of women who had organized antifeminist movements in New York in the 1970s — women who had relied on Schlafly’s newsletters to do so. These contacts may not have trusted an unknown graduate student studying women’s history (the book began as a Ph.D. dissertation), but they gladly spoke to me when I told them that Schlafly had sent me!
The biggest surprise to come from these interviews was that nearly all the Catholic women — in both subconscious and more direct ways — linked the dislocations caused by Vatican II to their future antifeminism in the ways I describe above. I never would have made that association if I had not spoken to these women, and I encourage all historians, if possible, to pair traditional archival research with oral histories.