Why you should care
Because Republicans weren’t always aligned against family planning.
The latest missive in the national debate over abortion was launched in late August when Planned Parenthood announced it was pulling out of Title X, the federal program that provides millions of grant dollars each year to family planning.
National outlets scrambled in response: The Atlantic called it “a huge bet” — after all, the organization was turning down $60 million — while The New York Times declared that it “just got harder to get birth control in America.” Why? Because Planned Parenthood was choosing to walk away rather than comply with a new Trump administration gag rule forbidding Title X-funded programs from offering abortions while also providing other health care services.
As others have pointed out, the Trump administration got a twofold political victory from that decision. Not only did it stop more federal funds from going to abortion services, but it also received another proof point in its argument that Planned Parenthood is more devoted to abortion than providing health care to the poor.
Still, there is a certain amount of irony that has been mostly forgotten in the hubbub: that it was Republican leaders who originally funded Planned Parenthood’s services with Title X dollars all those decades ago.
“The Republican Party in the time of Richard Nixon was as feminist as the Democratic Party, although more on the centrist, pro-business type of feminism than on the social welfare, progressive feminism,” says Nancy Cohen, author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America.
The story begins with Tricky Dicky. Watching the success of the first federal subsidies for family planning, which began in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, Nixon asked Congress in 1969 to create a commission on Population Growth and the American Future. Such topics were at the forefront of the American mind. After all, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb had just been published the year before … as had Pope John Paul II’s “Humanae Vitae,” reaffirming Catholic opposition to abortion and conception.
The battle lines had been drawn, and Nixon wasn’t the only Republican to side with family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood. George H.W. Bush — whose father, Prescott, served as treasurer for that group’s first national fundraising effort — was such an ardent supporter of family planning that his colleagues began calling him “Rubbers” for short.
“We need to make family planning a household word. We need to take the sensationalism out of the topic so it can no longer be used by militants who have no knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program, but rather are using it as a political stepping-stone,” said Bush, then just a second-term U.S. representative from Texas, while sponsoring Title X.
Those political stepping-stoners Bush was referring to were a nascent movement: of “anti-feminist, religious conservatives — mostly women — that were in many ways a counterrevolution against feminism and the sexual revolution,” as Cohen puts it.
They had emerged during the 1964 presidential election, when they helped Barry Goldwater become the Republican nominee, before mobilizing against the Equal Rights Amendment in the early ’70s. The effort, something akin to the modern-day tea party, was led by Phyllis Schlafly, a “brilliant political entrepreneur,” Cohen says, who “had her base in Republican women’s clubs, and organizing women.” Schlafly said she opposed the ERA because she feared, among other things, that it would take away “dependent wife” benefits under Social Security and end separate restrooms for men and women.
Nixon and his allies were able to pass the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act in December 1970 with a unanimous Senate vote and overwhelming support in the House of Representatives. “It is noteworthy that this landmark legislation on family planning and population has had strong bipartisan support,” he said in a statement while signing the bill.
But that alliance on family planning wouldn’t last long. Already, the Schlafly conservatives were shifting their focus, from the ERA to another nemesis: abortion access. The shift was somewhat ironic. They were going to war with Planned Parenthood after getting their start as staunch soldiers for Goldwater — whose own wife, Peggy, had helped fund the Arizona branch of the organization.
From another perspective though, the shift was a natural fit. “The way to think of this is less of an anti-abortion movement than an anti-feminist movement,” Cohen says. “It violated their sense, for many of them based in a biblical literalism, that God ordained that women should be beholden to their husbands, and their primary role was to be a mother.”
The ensuing decades were rife with interparty fights. The religious right coalesced with activism at the precinct, local and state levels, pressuring moderate candidates with primary challenges. They proved their power by being a critical bloc in Ronald Reagan’s defeat over Bush in the 1979 presidential primary, and at the GOP convention that year they rewrote much of the platform — watering down the Republican Party’s traditional support for equal rights for women, calling for an end to affirmative action and introducing a new plank calling for a constitutional ban against abortion.
Up until that point, feminist Republicans “could credibly argue that for most of the 20th century, the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, had been the champion of women’s equality,” writes Cohen in Delirium. “We are about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes,” said Republican National Committee co-chair Mary Dent Crisp, a former Goldwater supporter and the highest-ranking woman in the party, who believed individual liberty and women’s rights were deeply tied together.
The response? Convention delegates voted to strip her of her chairmanship, and she chose to walk out of the convention in response. It was a fitting image for a generation of Republicans who felt like the party had forced them to hit the highway.