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date: 12 November 2019

Crisp, Mary Dentfree

(05 November 1923–24 March 2007)
  • Julie Berebitsky

Crisp, Mary Dent (05 November 1923–24 March 2007), Republican Party leader and women's rights advocate, Republican Party leader and women’s rights advocate, was born Mary Dent in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the seventh child of Harry Dent and Elizabeth Patch Dent. After graduating from Allentown High School, she attended Oberlin College, receiving a degree in botany in 1946. She would later trace her interest in politics to Oberlin’s emphasis on an individual’s responsibility to engage with pressing social issues. She married William Crisp, a doctor, in 1948; the couple had three children and resided in Phoenix, Arizona. There, she took graduate courses in political science at Arizona State University.

Initially a conservative, Mary Crisp’s involvement with the Republican Party began in 1961 when she volunteered as a deputy registrar for the U.S. senator Barry Goldwater’s reelection campaign in Arizona. She worked her way up the party ranks, and in 1972 she was elected Arizona’s national committeewoman and served on the platform committee at the Republican National Convention.

That same year, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states to be ratified. Although the ERA had been a part of the Republican platform since 1940, it would quickly become a point of contention between moderates and conservatives. As a committeewoman, Crisp was charged with testifying on its behalf before the Arizona legislature. During the hearings, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Republican and founder of Stop ERA, the primary organization opposing ratification, also spoke. This event and Crisp’s divorce in 1976 led to her identification as a feminist. That year she also served as secretary at the Republican National Convention, calling the roll at the convention in Kansas City, Missouri, and she was later elected secretary of the Republican National Committee (RNC).

In 1977 the RNC chairman Bill Brock named Crisp cochair with the aim of broadening the base and building women’s interest in the party, although she was a controversial choice. Brock and Crisp had supported the moderate Gerald Ford at the 1976 convention over Ronald Reagan, and Crisp’s appointment angered conservatives. As cochair, Crisp traveled around the country leading bipartisan “Passage to Power” seminars designed to empower women and encourage their participation in politics. She also served on President Jimmy Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women. In early 1978 she was reelected RNC cochair after surviving a challenge from Gloria Toote, a conservative African American who had served as the assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Ford administration and supported Reagan. Crisp often spoke publicly in favor of the ERA and abortion rights; in response to her advocacy, some party conservatives referred to her as the “Gloria Steinem of the Republican Party.”

Crisp’s involvement with the women’s movement and the Republican Party illuminates two intertwined events of the 1970s: the development of an organized opposition to the feminist movement and the Republican Party’s realignment from a party with moderate and conservative wings to a party of the Right. As the 1980 Republican National Convention drew near and Reagan’s nomination seemed certain, Crisp found herself on the outskirts of the party. Reagan did not support the ERA, and when Crisp gave an interview that seemed to endorse John Anderson, a Republican congressman who was running for president as an independent, RNC chairman Brock withdrew his support for her. Brock canceled her public appearances and removed her from an official role at the convention. In response, she announced that she would not seek reelection.

The GOP’s 1980 platform removed support for the ratification of the ERA and, for the first time, endorsed a constitutional ban on abortion. Believing the party was turning away from its historic support for women’s rights, Crisp gave an impassioned farewell speech to members of the RNC as they prepared for the convention opening. “Although our party has presented the outward appearance of vibrant health, I’m afraid we are suffering from serious internal sickness,” she said. “Our party has endorsed and worked for the ERA for 40 years. Now we are reversing our position and are about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes.” The platform, she warned, could prevent the election of a Republican president. In response, Reagan challenged Crisp’s loyalty to the party on national TV. This heated exchange, which exposed the deep and growing division between moderates and conservatives over women’s issues, made front-page news and dominated early coverage of the GOP’s convention. Reagan nominated Betty Heitman as Crisp’s replacement. President of the National Federation of Republican Women, Heitman had never taken a public stance on the ERA.

Crisp joined Anderson as manager of his “National Unity” campaign, which included an effort to highlight his support of women’s issues to attract Republican feminists and feminists who were disappointed in President Carter’s efforts on behalf of the ERA and his views on abortion funding for poor women. The Anderson campaign was unsuccessful, receiving 7 percent of the vote in the general election.

From 1984 to 1990 Crisp served as adviser and political director to Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan advocacy group that called for arms control, more efficient defense spending, and the application of business insights to solve national security issues. She also served as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and Planned Parenthood, among other organizations, and she continued to travel around the country speaking on reproductive rights to women’s groups and local affiliates of pro-choice organizations, such as the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Crisp’s last political effort concerned abortion rights. In 1989 in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Supreme Court upheld Missouri legislation that placed a number of restrictions on abortion, including requiring physicians to perform viability tests if a woman was twenty or more weeks pregnant. Abortion rights activists believed this decision would lead to further challenges to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. Crisp responded by founding the National Republican Coalition for Choice (NRCC), a grassroots organization committed to identifying and electing pro-choice candidates in Republican primaries. In 1992 Crisp and other pro-choice Republicans fought to change the party platform, but they were unsuccessful; efforts to include a statement acknowledging differing views on abortion among Republicans also failed. Crisp served as NRCC chair and spokesperson until 1994.

In 1998 Crisp described the Republican Party she served in the 1960s and 1970s as “the party of Abraham Lincoln.” By that time, Crisp had spent almost twenty years working on women’s issues in an effort to return the party to what she believed were its ideological roots—individual freedom and limited government—represented most vividly for her in women’s right to obtain an abortion. She died in Phoenix, Arizona.

Bibliography

Crisp’s papers, which document her professional life, are held at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts. Crisp’s involvement in the Republican Party and the women’s movement received a good deal of media coverage; two of the best sources are Myra MacPherson, “Mary Crisp: The GOP’s Woman Without,” Washington Post, 1 July 1980, and Bill Peterson, “In Her Farewell, Mary Crisp Blasts GOP ‘Sickness,’” Washington Post, 10 July 1980, which includes Crisp’s quotation above regarding the party and the ERA. Crisp is also briefly discussed in a number of monographs, including Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (2006). “My Journey to Feminism,” a short but rare autobiographical narrative that contains Crisp’s quotation on “the party of Abraham Lincoln,” appears in True to Ourselves: A Celebration of Women Making a Difference, ed. Nancy M. Neuman (1998). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 17 Apr. 2007.