How The Once Pro-Women GOP Ended Up The Party Of Trump

Here’s how the once socially progressive party went so far right that even its own leaders are pulling their support.

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Oct 21, 2016 at 2:16 PM ET

On October 14, Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee for president, told a crowd that a woman was too ugly for him to have sexually assaulted. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” he said about Jessica Leeds, one of multiple women to accuse him of sexual assault and misconduct, after a video surfaced of Trump bragging about exactly that.

Trump’s treatment of women is finally taking its toll: Since the October 8 publication of a 2005 tape in which the GOP nominee jokes about forcing himself on women, roughly 20 percent of the party’s elected officials have withdrawn their support. After the third debate, where he growled “such a nasty woman” at his opponent, Trump continues to languish at his lowest point in the polls. 

And yet, Trump remains the standard bearer for one of our two major parties — a national figure who’ll get tens of millions of votes in November — prompting many to wonder: How did we get here?

A pretty direct line can be drawn between Trump and the rest of his party — which brought us forced ultrasounds, aspirin between knees, and the phrase “legitimate rape” — casting the candidate as a crass and loud manifestation of policies the GOP has quietly supported for years. But despite that, the Republican Party hasn’t always been this way.

“If we want to go back 150 years, we know that the Republican party was the party of Lincoln and it was certainly true at that time that it was the more progressive party,” says Linda Gordon, Ph.D., a history professor at New York University and author of The Moral Property of Women: The History of Birth Control Politics in America. While Southern Democrats clung onto white supremacy, “Those men who supported women’s rights and women’s suffrage tended to be Republicans.”

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But you don’t need to rewind more than a century to find bright spots in the GOP’s history with women. After the 19th amendment was passed, securing women the right to vote, first-wave feminists continued to push for protections against sex discrimination with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the 1920s, it was Republicans who first took the amendment to Congress, and, two decades later, made it an official part of the party’s platform — beating out Democrats, who would follow suit.

The party’s support for women made it possible for Republican officials to back feminist organizations, including Planned Parenthood — an almost unthinkable position for a GOP candidate today. In the 1940s, eventual U.S. Senator Prescott Bush (father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather to George W. and Jeb) did just that, serving as treasurer of Planned Parenthood’s fundraising campaign. The following decade, President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, called on Congress to pass the ERA, becoming the first president to throw his full support behind the amendment. After his presidency, he also became a supporter of contraception.

In the ‘60s, as Democrats began to lean toward women and minorities to gain votes and some Republicans looked to disaffected white Southerners for the same reason, it was still possible to get elected as what some might call a Republican feminist. As a congressman from Texas, George H. W. Bush was a strong advocate for family planning services. And Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, passed a major piece of pro-choice legislation, making the procedure legal in specific cases. He would later say he regretted the decision, but regardless, it put California ahead of many states on reproductive healthcare, and created an option for some women five years before Roe v. Wade. (As governor, Reagan, a divorcee, also signed a bill legalizing no-fault divorce, making California the first state to allow couples to mutually decide to end a marriage.) Even Hillary Clinton, who was a high school and college student in the ‘60s, would identify as a Republican during part of this period, and was elected as president of the Wellesley Young Republicans Club after her first year of college.

Republican President Richard Nixon kicked off the ‘70s by enacting Title X, a federal grant program with bipartisan support designed to make family planning services (excluding abortion) accessible. Two years later, he endorsed the ERA, around the same time that the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed, further protecting women from workplace discrimination. While the fight for equal rights was far from over, things were looking up — so much that by the time the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, “The stance on abortion in this country looked like what you might say today about gay rights and gay marriage,” says Gordon. “It looked like women’s rights and abortion were just on a roll.”

And then, a shift. At a point when women’s rights could have sped forward — with a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body a tent pole of that progress — powerful evangelicals like Paul Weyrich stepped in the way, forming the New Right Movement and fueling it with the rhetoric of televangelists like Jerry Falwell, who could preach to people right in their living rooms.

“[The New Right] began pouring money into campaigns against gay rights, against abortion, against sex education,” says Gordon. By increasingly alienating women and minorities “the Republican party was becoming a party that was disproportionately white male.” Just three years after Roe v. Wade, the tides turned and Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, a provision introduced by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde that banned Medicaid coverage for abortion. “Based on his Catholic beliefs, he insisted that he would like to stop abortion, and who he could target was low-income women,” says O’Neill, a feminist attorney and president of the National Organization for Women, a bi-partisan group founded in 1966.

By the end of 1980, the Republican Party had removed the ERA from its platform and stood firmly against abortion, focusing its language on the fetus — not the woman — affirming support for “unborn children,” a trend that persists today. “Honestly, this is when women began to be pushed out of the Republican Party and their policy agenda,” says O’Neill. “From that moment on, what you saw was this steady drip, drip, drip erosion from Republican Party support for women’s rights.”

President Reagan, who had once made it easier for women in California to get an abortion, had been in office just two years when he declared 1983 to be “the year of the Bible” and wrote an article for the anti-abortion publication Human Life Review. He continued to court the Christian Right throughout his presidency, giving even more influence to Falwell and the Moral Majority — an organization founded to mobilize conservatives and further its religious agenda.

Finally, tired of having their rights rolled back, women took to the polls in force. Their presence showed: In 1992, the same year Bill Clinton was elected, 24 first-term women were elected to the House of Representatives, and four new women were elected to the U.S. senate, bringing the total number of women in Congress to 53 — of which 40 were Democrats. Following the election, 1992 was dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” but it was clearly the Democratic Party that had taken the lead on not just representing women, but also advocating for their interests.

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The divide between the parties’ stances on women grew even larger under President George W. Bush, a Methodist who appealed to evangelical and anti-abortion voters. “He did two things specifically that were really anti-woman,” says O’Neill. “First, he criminalized an abortion procedure that was the safest procedure in the third trimester… It signaled to women that their president was perfectly happy for them to be physically damaged in the service of an ideological goal.”

“The other thing George W. Bush did was more systematic,” she says, referring to the Bush administration’s midterm dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys and use of illegal hiring practices to bring on applicants with conservative, anti-abortion views for key positions. Bush also nominated two conservative Supreme Court justices, John G. Roberts, Jr. and Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. — the latter of whom would go on to write the Court’s opinion in the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed for-profit businesses to refuse to cover birth control for female employees.

But the real blow to women would come after Bush left office. With the country in the throes of a recession, President Barack Obama in the White House, and Democrats in control of Congress, some Republicans drifted further right. Enter the Tea Party, calling for a so-called libertarian policy on taxes and government spending, but at the same time, taking an ultra conservative stance on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage. Their influence only made it harder for more moderate Republicans to get elected without embracing a similar platform. And while it would have made sense for Republicans to stand up against this movement, instead, they dug in their heels, blocking pro-woman legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aimed to close the gender wage gap, attempting to remove Native American and LGBTQ women from protections under the Violence Against Women Act, an important and seemingly no-brainer piece of legislation to ensure justice for victims of sexual and domestic violence, and doubling down on abortion. In fact, since 2010, the GOP has passed more than 288 abortion restrictionsnearly as many as the previous 15 years combined.

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And now, Trump, the presidential candidate who blatantly says what Republican lawmakers have been writing into policy for years. “The chickens have come home to roost,” says Gordon. “[Trump] went much further and he’s much cruder than a lot of [Republican politicians] are comfortable with, but they absolutely created him, in a certain way.”

In recent weeks, Trump’s sexism appears to be moving the needle. Republican party leaders have been jumping ship at unprecedented rates: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote on her Facebook page following the tape’s release, “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President…” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte released a statement that read, in part, “I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women.”  Others had dropped their support before that. Former Jeb Bush advisor, Sally Bradshaw, switched from a Republican to an Independent in August, calling Trump a “total narcissist—a misogynist—a bigot.”

And it’s hurting Trump’s supporters too. Jennifer Pierotti, a 31-year-old attorney and Republican from Washington, DC, became so fed up with her party and its nominee that she founded a grassroots volunteer group, Republican Women for Hillary. (It now has more than 3,500 followers on Facebook.) “It really shocked me when our Republican leaders started to endorse [Trump] back in May, which I thought was extremely premature,” she says. “I really felt like my party abandoned me—they were already endorsing a person I don’t think can represent me as a woman.”

The group launched in May, looking to speak up for Republican women alienated by the party and encouraging them to support Clinton. For Pierotti, a self-described lifelong Republican, not voting isn’t an option. “I don’t know if it sets the right example for [Republican lawmakers] to say they are not going vote,” she says. “Recently I had someone tell me that a lot of Republican leaders think the same way I do about the election, they are just in a tough spot. But if you are an elected leader, you need to be willing to make hard choices.”

While some women and women’s organizations—including the National Federation of Republican Women—are sticking by Trump, polling data shows a huge drop-off in support for Trump among women, even Republican women. 

“One of the things I kept hearing from Republican women was, ‘[Trump]’s not really like that. He’s not really anti-choice,” says O’Neill. “But you listen to that tape, and you cannot avoid it. You can’t explain him away. You can’t say, Oh gosh, not really.’ That’s Donald Trump. That what he does and that’s what he is.”

“I was very frustrated with the [GOP] reaction to the Trump tape, because people in our group, we were like, ‘How are you just realizing that this person is unacceptable?” says Pierotti, who considers herself a feminist. “He clearly thinks of women as second-class citizens.”

But for now, the GOP is stuck with Trump. Assuming he loses in November (which, at present, looks likely), the remaining question is whether a loss — perhaps a blowout — will prompt any real change to the GOP platform. 

Pierotti, for her part, just hopes that women who are on the fence will find some common ground with Clinton. “I think a lot of women can appreciate the struggles she’s gone through with having to balance how emotional she is, how she reacts in a debate, how she has to wait patiently for the lunatic in the room to stop yelling before she can speak,” she says. “I know for some women, that first debate sealed the deal. You have this visual: a crazy, unprepared lunatic who doesn’t have a real policy, or this very prepared woman who actually wants to talk about policy solutions. You can’t ignore that.”