An Unlikely Partnership? Orrin Hatch and the Founding of National Women’s History Month, Part 3

By March 31, 2016

This is the third and final post in a series about Orrin Hatch’s role in the National Women’s History Week/Month in the context of the backdrop of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Last time when I left off, I intended to explore the process under which both Senator Orrin Hatch

Barbara Mikulski on Meet the Press, 1983

Barbara Mikulski on Meet the Press, 1983

and then Representative Barbara Mikulski came to co-sponsor National Women’s History Week. This partnership is very curious given many of their seemingly diametrically opposed views. Mikulski was an advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In 2012, as a senator, she cosponsored a bill with others to reintroduce the amendment for ratification. Most of the news coverage I found that included both Orrin Hatch and Barbara Mikulski focused on the heated debate over the Equal Rights Amendment.

My working argument throughout this series has been that the co-sponsorship of National Women’s History Week was an effort to demonstrate bipartisanship during the otherwise contentious time concerning women’s rights during this period. I do not diminish Women’s History Week as a “token” effort to show cooperation during this time, as it was a much-needed recognition during a time when other weeks and months were being set aside to celebrate the historical achievements of non-white men in power.

I am extending my argument to consider the importance of bipartisan cooperation (and also the appearance of bipartisan cooperation) during these particularly difficult moments of debate.

When I began this series, I admit I know much more about Senator Hatch then I knew about Senator Mikulski. I knew she was from Baltimore, the longest serving women senator, the “Dean of the Women” or official mentor to incoming female senators, and a Democrat who supported equal pay, a woman’s right to choose, improving health care for and medical research on women, and subsidizing child-care for low-income families. I did not know of her reputation as a “holy terror” to some. A 2012 Washington Post article described how others who supported her, opposed her, or worked along side of her considered her “grating” and “gruff and unpolished.” According to Washingtonian Magazine, she is “a ‘perennial’ in the ““meanest”” member category.”

Instead of analyzing how these remarks are gendered and wondering how a male senator who comes across as “gruff” is not labeled in such a way, I will say that is apparent, as she readily admits, that she is sick and tired of how she believes women are being short-shifted by the lack of equal pay and recognition in other areas. In a 1983 “Face the Nation” interview, then-Congresswoman Mikulski when asked about the “limited” amount of time that the ERA has been debated, Mikulski was quick to respond: “When we talk about the limited time…the ERA was introduced into congress sixty years ago. We’ve had sixty years of debate since it was originally passed in 1970.” Also in response to a question about how some had been offended by the process of the ERA ratification, Mikulski also said, “If they think they’re offended by this process, I’ve been offended by this process that’s happened to women for two hundred years.”

Hatch, on the other hand, has been accused of not being the best for supporting women’s interests and is known rescinding his support for acts like the Violence Against Women Act, which he helped create in 1994. In 2012, Hatch claimed that other lawmakers had added many changes that bill was now “designed to shatter’ its bipartisan support. Of course, just as the claim can be made that Mikulski’s known reputation for brashness and unpleasantness is due to the fact she is a vocal woman, some can claim that Hatch’s lack of support for women’s rights is mostly due to his conservative background. Many would argue that Hatch’s opposed some measures such as the ERA because he believed it would be better for women not to have the ERA passed.

In the mid-summer of 1982, Phyllis Schlafly held a celebration at a hotel in Washington, D.C. A Washington Post writer wryly described the invitation to the event:

“Folded neatly between peach-colored paper adorned with rainbows (it’s not as bad as it sounds) is a fascinating list of more than 50 people who will “be specially honored.” Schlafly, whose first loves were anticommunism and defense before she began speaking for the women of America, has reverted. The list of honorees–mostly men–who saved the country from ERA reads like a Who’s Who of the Right, heavy on the big military spenders and repressive conservatives. If Phyllis Schlafly was defending the well-being of American women, which was the line she peddled from talk show to talk show, she apparently didn’t have many female allies: There are only a handful of women on her list.” (Washington Post, June 30, 1982)

Orrin Hatch was one of those “repressive conservatives” to be honored at the event alongside Larry McDonald (a former member of the John Birch Society) and Senator Jesse Helms.

In a simplistic telling of this story, Orrin Hatch would be considered a “repressive conservative” known for killing the ERA and Barbara Mikulski would be another “angry” woman known for supporting women’s rights. Their bipartisan support of National Women’s History Week would (and is) a foot note in this larger ideological battle and culture that erupted across the aisle, across feminists who supposedly eschewed traditional and those who believed there was an attack on traditional values, and, most certainly, within families, marriages, and friendships.

While I know a lot more about Orrin Hatch’s religious background and religiosity than Barbara Mikulski’s, I am certain that their belief systems pushed them to support both National Women’s History Week and, respectively, oppose and support the ERA. For them, the ERA was most certainly a moral issue above all else.

Article filed under Politics Women's History


Comments

  1. Thanks, Natalie, this is fascinating. Does this fit into your dissertation in any way?

    Comment by Saskia — March 31, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

  2. Hey Saskia. Thanks! Actually, not really. It’s an interest that grew out of my 2004(!!) MA thesis on the origins on American national women’s history month and a conference paper I wrote and delivered on the ERA and the Romney at the 2014 MHA. Ever since then I have wanted to get into the project more. I have long been fascinated with how Orrin Hatch became involved with cosponsoring the NWHW/M with a well-known democratic representative who supported the ERA.

    Comment by Natalie R — March 31, 2016 @ 5:51 pm


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