The New Right: conservative women press for family causes

A quiet but resolute movement of women is working to establish political clout throughout the country. And most of their causes are in direct opposition to those forwarded by feminists in the last decade.

Following the call of conservative leaders like Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant, women from Bozeman, Mont., to Miami, Fla., have entered the political system at the local and national level, mobilizing against issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, or the White House Conference on Families.

These women, part of the so-called New Right, maintain they have played a big part in conservative victories.

Their next battleground, some say, is overreaching by America's judges.

"Women are the backbone of the conservative movement," says Jo Ann Gasper, editor of "The Right Woman," a newsletter which monitors legislation affecting women and families. "The men have a high profile, but we're the ones who walk the streets, volunteer for the campaigns, and do the telephoning."

The actual strength of the conservative New Right has been disputed by moderates and liberals. They maintain that the sweeping success of conservative candidates in last fall's election was a response to economic woes, not social issues. They point to polls which show that the majority of the country still supports the proposed ERA.

But there is no doubt that ERA ratification has been dealt a stunning blow by the conservatives out to stop it. And an estimated crowd of 60,000 descended on Washington earlier this year for the annual protest of the "social issue" of abortion.

One detects an air of satisfied success when discussing the ERA or last November's elections with the women of the New Right. They have confidently targeted new areas of activity.

Conservative women are pressing for passage of the Human Life Amendment (which could constitutionally ban most abortions and some birth control). They will lobby to "clean up" public schools, while protecting and facilitating private schools. They call for parental authority in health care. The New Right is also boycotting sponsors of television shows and movies that they consider immoral.

But perhaps the hottest issue in the New Right's future will be "judicial hyperactivity," says Connaught Marshner, a member of the National Pro-Family Coalition and editor of the Family Protection Report in Washington, D.C. She sees too many people "betrayed" by court action.

"What do you tell a women when she has worked long and hard for something, lobbying state legislators or local school boards, and then the court moves in and says she can't get what she worked hard for?" asks Mrs. Marshner. Conservatives plan to research the role of the judiciary, study the idea of reconfirmation for federal judges, and urge more thorough examinations of the records of local judges before election time.

Some of the New Right women are politically astute. Connaught Marshner has spent ten years working on and off for conservative causes in Washington, taking time off to have two children.

But most of the grass-roots supporters are homemakers whose only previous political act has been voting or going to school board meetings. Mrs. Marshner describes the average conservative woman as middle or lower middle income, churchgoing, and family oriented.

"But that is far as you can go in stereo-typing," she adds. "These women are not just Christians, and they don't live in one region. Conservative women cut across political parties and ethnic groups.

"I think women have awakened to the real devastation being wreaked on what they hold dear -- the family," says Mrs. Marshner.

Shirleen Gappmayer, a homemaker from Bozeman, Mont., is typical of the rank and file in the conservative movement. She has been married 29 years and has four children.Mrs. Gappmayer began her grass-roots support after she heard about the ERA, which "frightened" her.

"I didn't want my tax dollars spent on the things the ERA represents," says Mrs. Gappmayer, who is a Morman. She expresses her opinion by voting only for candidates who are anti-ERA and anti-abortion. She also speaks out among friends and at church.

"I am probably a traditional woman, but I have a good mind, and I am not oppressed," says Mrs. Gappmayer. "I feel women are equal with men, but our roles have to be apart. My role as mother is not the same as my husband's role as a father."

The idea of different roles for men and women is a sort of clarion call for the New Right. Many women feel the role of homemaker is such maligned, and the New Right claims to be one of the few institution that cherishes the role of mother.

"Some women like to stay at home, and they are finding the desire to do that is becoming a political statement," says Connaught Marshner.

Though the New Right women defend the mother that stays at home, they are adament that those who work hard for conservative causes should take their place next to male leaders. The fact that few women have been appointed to top positions in the current administration has caused some grumbling.

"There has been some talk that there is a lack of concern for us in the Reagan administration," admits Mrs. Gasper. "But I have been assured that this will be corrected. We cannot continue to work for candidates and not be recognized."

Still, most New Right women deny that they experience actual discrimination.

"Sex is neutral -- it doesn't matter when it comes to political allies," declares Mrs. Marshner. "It's whether or not you are conservative that counts. I've always found that women have risen to the level of their competency."

But what about young women who feel the feminist movement has been important in opening opportunities for them? Why should they be drawn to the New Right? Mrs. Gasper says that the conservative movement should think long and hard about what it can offer young women.

"I hate to use the word recruit, but I think we need to be more out in the open, more obvious," she says. "We should have role models for young women. The feminists have been good at role models. If you didn't like Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug, there was Marlo Thomas or Lynda Robb."

Mrs. Marshner does think Phyllis Schlafly as a role model has attracted young women. And she also says the abortion issue has also made a difference.

"A lot of young women are inclined to be liberal until they realize that the feminists are inextricably linked with abortion," she says.

Though moderates and liberals claim the right offers little encouragement to minority and impoverished women, Mrs. Gasper says they are also a part of the New Right.

"I think most black women are conservative," she says. "There are a few [ liberal black women] that are perceived to speak for all, but they do not really."

In fact, says Mrs. Gasper, the feminist movement has no vitality to offer any women. Feminists scoff at that suggestion. Iris Mitgang, who heads the National Women's Political Caucus, says the constituency of the New Right is not as great as the press makes it out to be.

"Feminists are in the far greater majority," she says, pointing out as example that over half the population, even in unratified states, supports the ERA.

Nonetheless, some moderates and liberals are worried.

"Yes, the right is organized," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women."They are also a tiny minority. But they are a tiny minority with money, and that makes them very dangerous."

Mary Dent Crisp is the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee who was ousted by conservative forces in a stormy confrontation at last year's Republican National Convention.

"The underlying theme is that men are in control," she continues. "Those women that have some leadership have gained personal recognition. But in the male power structure, Phyllis [Schlafly] has got nothing."

Could there be a joining of ranks between feminists and conservative women activists?

'Whether a woman is right wing or a feminist, we share the common bond of family and homemaking," says Ms. Mitgang, the mother of three children. "Right-wing women have had to move into work force just as feminists have. They experience the same issues of equal pay, child care, divorce, or widowhood. These issues cut across all political lines."

But New Right leaders are doubtful that there will ever be an alliance. The gap in political philosophy looms to large.

"We could conceivably agree with the National Organization for Women on some issues," says Mrs. Marshner. "But only if they would come out of their political coalition, which aligns them firmly with left liberals."

Some moderates and liberals predict the New Right will get themselves in trouble with their hard-line attitudes and tendency toward "polarization."

"The New Right says women have one role," says Mrs. Smeal. "But we have many roles. And if they are saying their morals are better than mine, then we lose the operation of a free society. I am not saying that every woman should use birth control or have abortions, but no one else should decide for her."

Most New Right women do see their cause as a uniting one.

"It is hard work and tiring," says Jo Ann Gasper. "I would really like the freedom to stay at home with my family.

"But I have three reasons why I do this --my three children. I want them to live in a better country."

Connaught Marshner enjoys being in the thick of the battle, which she also believes will better the country. When she was a young college graduate a decade ago, she assumed she would teach school and write novels during the summer. Now she is at the front line of a movement she is convinced will change the course of the country.

"Now instead of novels, when I retire I just might write a history book," she says.

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