Mary Dent Crisp, who was driven from the leadership of the Republican Party in 1980 after publicly assailing its opposition to abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, died March 24 at her home in Phoenix. She was 83.
Crisp had Parkinson’s disease and died of complications from a stroke, said her son, William, of Phoenix.
A homemaker turned activist, Crisp worked her way up from grass-roots volunteer to co-chair of the Republican National Committee in 1977. She was forced to give up the post at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit when she challenged the party’s antiabortion platform and condemned its abandonment of the ERA -- a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate sex discrimination that GOP conventions had supported for four decades.
“Now we are ... about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes,” she said in an impassioned speech to the GOP platform committee.
She said the committee’s endorsement of a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion “could prevent the party from electing the next president of the United States.”
She was wrong on the latter score: The party’s nominee, Ronald Reagan, won a resounding electoral victory and became one of the most popular presidents in modern history.
Her remarks put her in direct conflict with Reagan, who chastised his party’s highest-ranking woman on national television, saying that she “should look to herself and see how loyal she’s been to the Republican Party for quite some time.”
Crisp -- who by then had spent almost two decades working for the party, most of the time in unpaid positions -- was reportedly stung by Reagan’s rebuke. The next day, she announced that she was leaving the convention.
A month later, Crisp signed on as campaign chief for John B. Anderson, the Illinois congressman who ran for president as an independent and finished a distant third after Reagan and the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter.
Despite her perceived defection, Crisp remained a Republican. She also continued to fight for women’s rights, particularly for the freedom to terminate a pregnancy, because to do otherwise, she said in a 1996 interview with the Orange County Register, “would be to turn my back on everything I learned about being a Republican -- things like justice, equality, liberty and personal rights.”
She worked for mainstream feminist organizations such as the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Abortion Rights Action League. She also was a co-founder of the Republican National Coalition for Choice, which fought to develop an abortion rights plank for the platform at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.
That effort failed despite the support of conservative Republican Party icon Barry Goldwater, who said in a letter to Crisp made public just prior to the convention that the election would “go down in a shambles” if the party did not soften its stand against abortion rights.
Crisp began her political career in Arizona as a Goldwater supporter in the 1960s. She worked precincts, became a deputy registrar, then moved up local GOP ranks to become county and then state vice chair.
In 1972 she was elected to the Republican National Committee. She was reelected in 1976 and, as committee secretary, was seen on national television calling the roll at the party’s convention in Kansas City, Mo.
The next year, she became party co-chair. In 1978, she was reelected to the post, defeating a challenge by Reagan supporters to replace her.
Born in Allentown, Pa., the youngest of eight children of Elizabeth Patch and Harry Dent, she graduated in 1946 from Oberlin College with a degree in botany.
She later did graduate work in political science at Arizona State University.
In 1948, she married Dr. William Crisp, a physician with whom she had three children. They were divorced in 1976.
In addition to her son, she is survived by daughters Barbara and Anne, both of Phoenix; a brother, Richard Dent of Schnecksville, Pa.; a sister, Jesse Dent Cook of Arlington, Va.; her companion, William Taylor; and two grandchildren.
Crisp, who lived in Washington, D.C., for 28 years until moving back to Arizona in 2005, helped found the National Republican Coalition for Choice after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling upholding some state restrictions on abortions.
The group recruited and supported Republican candidates who advocated abortion rights.
From 1984 until the mid-1990s, Crisp worked as director of a Washington-based political action committee called Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan group concerned about the economic effects of the arms race.
Crisp did not characterize herself as an ardent feminist. In a 1980 interview with The Times, she said she saw herself as “a politician first,” who believed that keeping the ERA on the Republican platform would bolster Republican candidates, but she was crushed by the rising right flank of the party.
“I’ve been saying this for some time,” she said in 1980 of her efforts to steer a more moderate course. “But it’s like a cry in the wilderness here.”