Women’s Splinter Party Would Stymie Friends and Comfort Enemies


The recent decision by the convention of the National Organization for Women to explore the possibility of establishing a national women’s party is the most quixotic action taken by a major political gathering since the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832 proposed making membership in Phi Beta Kappa illegal. The establishment of a new political party would not only fail to advance the feminist agenda but would have negative consequences for the Democrats, the one major party that has taken the issues advocated by NOW seriously.

History provides some depressing examples of the futile and self-defeating results that are produced when a group of passionate people decide that insufficient attention is being paid to their concerns and sets up shop in the hope that they can get their own candidates elected. Sometimes these zealots are correct in their assertions that the major parties are evading the issues they care about, but in virtually every case, they end up advancing the cause of their worst enemies.

The best case for the establishment of an independent party came in the 1840s and 1850s when neither the Democrats nor the other major party, the Whigs, was confronting the issue of slavery at the national level. Anti-slavery Democrats in states like New York felt particularly frustrated by the unwillingness of their presidential standard-bearers to antagonize the Southern wing of the party. The anti-slavery activists broke off from the Democrats and established the Free-Soil Party. Their most conspicuous impact on politics was that in the presidential election of 1848, the Free-Soilers split the Democratic vote in New York and delivered the electoral votes of the most populous state to Zachary Taylor, a conservative Southern Whig who was no friend of the anti-slavery movement.

Similarly, the Progressive Party of the 1920s that addressed itself to a broader array of issues than do most splinter parties, weakened the Democrats, the party most likely to be sympathetic to the Progressives’ calls for farm relief, conservation and banking reform. But they, like the Free-Soilers before them, could at least make a persuasive case that although their cause received its most sympathetic hearing from Democrats, the dominant elements in the party would not give priority to their agenda.


This is a charge that NOW leaders cannot make against the Democratic Party. This is, after all, the party whose presidential candidates took up the cause of the equal rights amendment when it was contemptuously abandoned by the Republicans. The Democrats chose, at no small risk, to put a woman on the national ticket in 1984. The party has been unequivocally pro-choice, and its candidates have been suffered to run the gantlet of anti-abortion hecklers in every campaign since 1976. It is a party that has at least been willing to talk about questions such as comparable worth, and suffer the opprobrium of being associated with radical ideas--ideas that the Republicans comfortably sidestep or dismiss.

It is difficult to fathom just how the fire-eaters in NOW would achieve successes with a splinter party equal to those gained by the women’s movement’s close historical association with the Democrats. Would they be able, in any conceivable time period, to field 535 House and Senate candidates or even half that number? Finding a presidential candidate is a snap; even the vegetarians and prohibitionists can come up with a standard-bearer, but what of the rest of the ticket that gives a party national credibility?

How would a national women’s party overcome the traditional refusal of American voters to give significant support to any candidate other than a Democrat or Republican? Could this new party come up with a presidential nominee at least as appealing as John Anderson or as capable of touching a raw political nerve as George Wallace? Without a commanding figure at the forefront of the new party, it becomes a curiosity that is remembered only by those who collect campaign buttons.

But the most challenging question to put to those in NOW who want to take their organization on this fool’s errand is who would vote for their candidates? Even if the party did not call itself the National Women’s Party, would any organization that restricted itself to so limited a range of issues have as much of a prayer of gaining outside adherence as, let’s say, a national gay party would have in attracting heterosexual voters? A women’s party could probably not even count on the support of Alan Alda.


The effect to the Democrats, while certainly negative, would probably not damage the party more than some of its other recent setbacks. The impact of the new party would fall midway on the scale between the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright and the X-rated videotapes of Rob Lowe. But there is also a kind of mischievous quality about the move--almost as if it were cooked up in the Stygian political laboratory of Lee Atwater.

Perhaps the most devastating impact would be on those hopeful souls who enlisted in this ill-starred enterprise. In the depth of the disillusionment they will surely suffer, they will join another group of Americans who felt a cause so deeply that they abandoned the frustrating but promising path of coalition politics to go off on their solitary quest for political purity. They were called the Know-Nothings.