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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Party That's Not Meant for Everyone : THE REPUBLICAN WAR AGAINST WOMEN By Tanya Melich; Bantam $23.95, 356 pages

February 01, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We all know what it feels like to be betrayed by the politicians we vote for or the parties we hope will change our lives for the better. But while I consider infidelity and sexual harassment support-draining flaws in a political candidate, my in-laws become visibly annoyed when the subject of JFK's infidelities is brought up, and Gennifer Flowers is also a "separate issue."

The days of generational partisan politics (everyone at your dinner table cares about the same things and supports every plank in the platform of the same party supported at your parents' dinner table, and their parents') have long gone the way of the bald eagle. Politicians have to appeal to a wider variety of voters and voters don't go to the box like faithful fish being reeled in by party rhetoric.

Tanya Melich, however, is an old-fashioned Republican, born and bred in that single-minded, pistol-packing, family-that-votes-together tradition. This book is a record of her disappointment as a hard-working adult in the second half of the 20th century who discovers that the party of her forefathers does not support even the simplest pleasantries (equal pay, family leave, protection from sexual harassment, health care unfettered by religious or political affiliation) that make her life and the lives of other working women bearable.

She also discovers that the candidates she has given the first half of her life to getting elected are not even willing to stand by the promises they make to the women of the Republican Party, and that the concerns and expectations of her gender are in fact traded back and forth for votes and power like a couple of low cards at a cheesy poker game.

Melich has organized numerous Republican campaigns, co-founded the Republican Women's Movement; she now runs her own political consulting firm and has spent the last 25 years on the front lines of the abortion rights movement. Much of the book recounts her role as delegate at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, and her role in every subsequent campaign and every subsequent convention, until she finally left the GOP in 1995.

She charts her party's betrayal of women back to 1869, when the Republican-controlled Congress sent the 15th Amendment, which gave the vote only to black men and not to women, to the states for ratification. Fifty years later, in 1919, a Republican Congress gave women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, but only because it was hounded by suffragettes with enough "grass-roots muscle to force the politicians to take notice."

And then there was Richard Nixon, who, surprise, surprise, professed support for the women's movement even as he claimed that child care threatened family stability. And Phyllis Schafly, who rose to power and increasing influence on the Republican agenda in 1976 like a homunculus in friendly agar, yenta in the marriage of the New Right and the Religious Right, recruiter of Catholic and fundamentalist churchwomen in the successful march to kill the Equal Rights Amendment, a misogynist's misogynist.

Gosh, then there was the Gerald Ford betrayal in 1976, a campaign with an anti-abortion platform and a candidate who believed that "giving information on the use of contraceptives to minor children without parental consent was a 'serious blow to the very fiber of the family unit.' "

Through it all, Melich stresses abortion as the most divisive issue in the Republican Party, with the New Right's allies going only far enough in good years to allow that while abortion might be a woman's choice, the federal government shouldn't have to pay for it.

Melich follows the growth of the Religious Right and Falwell's Moral Majority to its full Venus' flytrap flowering in the Ronald Reagan years and the end of even lip service to the feminist agenda, with the disappointing appointments of Elizabeth Dole and Jeane Kirkpatrick.

She describes a George Bush campaign in which women like Lynn Martin, Olympia Snowe, Nancy Johnson, Margaret Tutwiler, Sheila Tate, Peggy Noonan and Mary Matalin worked to get a candidate elected who supported a frankly misogynist platform "more vicious than the one in Reagan's in 1980," an "identical twin of the 1984 plank written by the Religious Right," a candidate who believed Dan Quayle's good looks would clinch the women's vote.

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