THE POLITICAL fallout from the resurgence of the radical right is starting. But nothing will hurt Republicans more than the conservatives' gender war against the female members of their own party. Senate candidate Oliver North, for one, raises money with a letter contending that the political process has been "captured by an arrogant army of radical feminists."
For some time, the Republican Party has been casting parts of the American public -- blacks, Jews -- overboard. But gender war is their riskiest strategy to date. Women make up 53 percent of the American electorate. Not only is the Republican anti-feminism unlikely to attract Democrats, but also the likeliest outcome of the strategy is that it will break apart forever the always unstable Republican combination of freedom in the markets and repression in the home.
In the 1970s, conservative Republican polemicist Phyllis Schlafly made a public career of telling women that they did not belong in public life -- that their reproductive fate should rest with the state and that equality was the last thing women should want. Half public, half private, Mrs. Schlafly was the embodiment of the uneasy GOP alliance of economic libertarians and social conservatives.
But liberty is a hard thing to contain. Republican campaign honcho Mary Matalin, twice divorced and childless, is totally dedicated to her career. She admires sister conservative Republican speech writer Peggy Noonan ("no one knows the American soul better than Peggy Noonan"). Ms. Noonan is also divorced, a single mother and even lives in New York City. Dolly Madison McKenna, the woman the religious right defeated for party chairman in Texas, is a banker and oil-and-gas businesswoman. The gulf between many Republican women's lives and the demand to turn back the clock has grown too wide to bridge. Almost 60 percent of women in the electorate, Democrat or Republican, work for wages. Will Republican working women support a party that considers working a betrayal of women's "essential natures," as lawyer Marilyn Quayle told the GOP convention in 1992?
Feminism enabled women to challenge legal prohibitions against reproductive choice; now 71 percent of all Americans say the government should not interfere in women's right to abortion. Does the Republican attack on feminism mean that the Republicans will go to the electorate with the "abortion is criminal" platform plank again.
Radical Republicans don't oppose all women, Republican Committee Chief Haley Barbour has been telling the news media, just the "radical feminists." After all, the religious right supported the Senate candidacy of Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas. And Allen Quist, the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, says that he wouldn't make keeping women down a public policy; it's just what he does at home. But what counts is action.
Texas gave the nation a chance to see what to expect if the new Republican Party takes power. After taking control of the state party apparatus in June, the rightists struck from the platform a traditional sentence thanking their Republican senators for their work because Ms. Hutchison, moderately pro-choice, was too much a radical feminist for them. In response, she shoved back, telling the news media she agrees with Ms. McKenna that the GOP is not a church. The slap at Ms. Hutchison is just the beginning. If voters elect the new radical Republicans, they will learn that there are more ways than we ever dreamed to use law and public policy to keep women in their genetic place.
And if Kay Bailey Hutchison was too radical for the new Republican party, wait until they take a good look at Ms. Matalin, a self-proclaimed sexy, man-loving "info-babe." She has simply taken the freedom-loving public half of the Republican coalition and applied it to her private life. But no matter what the right says about its intentions toward women, as the slap at Ms. Hutchison has already revealed, Ms. Matalin's domestic freedom is the last thing her new tent-mates can accept. Once you turn the light of liberty on the subordination they embrace, the whole ugly political alliance dissolves.
Linda R. Hirshman, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times