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O'Connor's Tenure Began One Hot Summer

Monday, July 18, 2005

Sandra Day O'Connor didn't become the first woman on the Supreme Court by chance. Tanya Melich reveals how the Republican Women's Task Force prodded the appointment along in a fateful meeting with Ronald Reagan.

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Tanya Melich

(WOMENSENEWS)--On a hot July 15th morning in 1980 in Detroit, 16 Republican women sat around a table with GOP presidential nominee Ronald Reagan and talked about women's issues. This meeting was their last ditch effort to convince Reagan to do more for women.

For months the feminist Republican Women's Task Force, led by Pamela Curtis and Alice Tetelman, had mounted a major lobbying and press campaign to keep the Equal Rights Amendment in the Republican platform. It lost that fight when the Republican Platform Committee on July 9 voted 90-to-9 to drop the ERA.

Curtis had worked for the Republican National Committee as an assistant to Elly Peterson, former chair of the Michigan GOP and one of the most respected women in the party. Tetelman was chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Bill Green from Manhattan's silk-stocking district.

The press had reported widely that Reagan was not only against a woman' right to choose an abortion but opposed the ERA. The media effort by the Republican Women's Task Force to highlight that these positions would hurt women was forcing the Reagan team to do damage control. It feared such party strife would hurt the fall campaign.


'Unity Language' for New Platform

Several days before the 90-9 vote, it sent two women from the Reagan team to talk with Curtis and Tetelman about inserting "unity ERA" language into the platform and meeting with Reagan.

After heated, prolonged debates, the Republican Women's Task Force accepted--with some dissenters--the language and agreed for the good of the party not to mount a symbolic fight on the convention floor. Mary Louise Smith, former Republican national chair and a close friend of George H.W. Bush, then led the negotiations for the meeting with Reagan.

The 1980 platform weakened the party's earlier stands on women. The 1976 platform had included recognition that a woman had an identity separate from her role as a mother and homemaker, supported a mixed, tolerant view on a woman' right to choose, backed public and private child care and maintained the party's long-standing advocacy for the ERA.

The 1980 platform dropped all these. Instead, it called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. Child care became the responsibility of the private sector. In lieu of the ERA, it stated: "We support equal rights and equal opportunities for women without taking away traditional rights of women such as exemption from the military draft."

The infamous unity ERA language acknowledged "the legitimate efforts of those who support or oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment."


Tense Hotel Suite

Thus, the tension in Reagan's 69th floor hotel suite that morning was high.

The women in the room--consisting of both Republican Women's Task Force members and prominent Republicans--were not happy with Reagan's positions. Reagan's team was worried that his widely publicized opposition to the women's positions could hurt his chance to win the presidency.

Reagan's wing of the party was in the last days of consolidating its power over the GOP. It planned to roll back the GOP's support for feminist goals. The party's proud history, beginning with Susan B. Anthony's efforts to run for office on the Republican line after the Civil War and including the endorsement of the ERA in 1940, four years before the Democrats, was about to end.

The Reagan camp told the task force that it could decide who would meet with Reagan. But when the task force invited the nine platform committee members who had voted against dropping the ERA, the Reagan team rejected the one man who had voted no. Only women were to meet with Reagan, the campaign said.

Seven of the nine attended the meeting plus Helen Milliken, co-chair of ERA America and wife of Michigan Governor William Milliken; Reagan's feminist daughter Maureen Reagan; U.S. Rep. Peggy Heckler; former Cabinet member Carla Hills; U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum; National Labor Relations Board member Betty S. Murphy; Smith, Tetelman, and Curtis.

Smith and Heckler spoke for the group. They explained that a majority of female voters would believe Reagan was anti-women if he did not show he cared about them by giving a strong commitment to women in his convention acceptance speech. He did not commit.

In response to their questions about the ERA, he promised to establish a White House liaison office to work with the states that wished to eliminate discrimination against women. No one brought up abortion, believing the pro-choice position was a lost cause.

Responding to a veiled reference to Bush, Reagan said he would accept a running mate who was pro-ERA.

Smith recalled that going into the meeting "our hopes were very high that we could make a difference." Yet Reagan had said little of substance.


High Point of Meeting

Then as the group had agreed before the meeting, Heckler asked Reagan whether he would appoint women to his Cabinet and a woman to the Supreme Court. He seemed to light up and for the first time became fully engaged. To the women's surprise, Reagan said he would do both. For many in the room, it was the high point of the meeting.

News of his pledge to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court received little press. The story was lost in the excitement over Reagan's picking Bush to be his running mate. Some newspapers did report Reagan had promised to put a woman on the Supreme Court. Others said he would "consider" doing so.

Reagan's political strategist Stu Spencer had talked with Curtis and other members of the task force. He had hoped that Reagan's charm would convince its members that Reagan was not anti-women.

But few changed their minds. After the meeting, Curtis said, "A lot of consciousness-raising still needs to be done with the candidate and his staff." Tetelman agreed.

In the fall when polls showed Reagan slipping among women, Spencer pulled the Supreme Court pledge out of his bag of campaign tricks. On Oct. 14 in Los Angeles, Reagan announced he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court.

Hindsight can lead to many conclusions, but one thing is clear. If the task force women had not put up a fight and not made the Reagan team worry about losing women voters, that fateful meeting would not have taken place.

Reagan clearly liked the idea of being the first president to appoint a woman to the highest court. The women engaged his attention. Spencer needed a legitimate political gift for women.

When Justice Potter Stewart retired in 1981, Reagan and Spencer must have remembered the meeting in Detroit. Even if the ERA had been lost, the task force did make a positive difference in women's lives as Sandra Day O'Connor would prove.

Tanya Melich is author of the book, "The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report From Behind The Lines" (Bantam, paper, revised, 1998; hardcover, 1996).

For more information:

Special Report: O'Connor's Legacy:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2364/

Lines Drawn as Leaders React to O'Connor Resignation:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2365/

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