When Women Fight for Health Care
Before Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, There Was Midge Costanza
We are all still breathless from last week’s near-repeal of Obamacare. As two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, stood between the American public and a bill that would cut Medicare, defund Planned Parenthood, and throw the insurance industry into turmoil, keeping the consequences of the different bills straight became a struggle. Would 15 million people lose their healthcare? 23 million? 32 million? It was hard to keep track of what was on the table at any given time, much less being voted on. As each vote was rolled out, I kept thinking of journalist Dorothy Parker’s explosion every time the telephone rang: “What fresh hell is this?”
A third Republican no vote, John McCain of Arizona, put a stake in the heart of this round. But it was women who saved the day. Throughout this struggle, the wall standing between Republican determination to pass a bill, no matter how bad, and American working people keeping some kind of viable coverage (no matter how bad), was Collins and Murkowski. In a hair-raising ride through parliamentary procedure, vote-a-rama, and policy by tweet, they stood firm on every vote, despite the thuggery of the Trump administration. Murkowski, a proponent of Arctic drilling who had survived a 2010 Tea Party primary challenge (and won as a write-in candidate with no help from her own party), received a threatening call from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, which only strengthened her resolve. Both Collins and DeVos had also defied Trump on the Betsy DeVos nomination.
It’s not easy to defy the leadership of your own party. As I followed Collins and Murkowski this week, I thought about a little-known Democratic woman who, forty years ago this month, defied her President in an attempt to preserve women’s healthcare. Her name was Midge Costanza, and she worked for Jimmy Carter.
Born in 1932, Costanza began volunteering on local campaigns in Rochester, New York in 1959 as a 27 year-old administrative assistant. In 1964, now a member of her ward committee, she volunteered for Robert F. Kennedy’s New York state Senate campaign. In 1966, Costanza was elected to the county Democratic Committee, and in 1967 she became a state committeewoman. In 1972, Costanza made two key moves: she joined the newly founded National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), and she was elected to the New York delegation to the national convention that would nominate George McGovern to run against Richard Nixon.
When the women delegates caucused at the convention, Costanza — now a seasoned political hand — recalled the chaos of a room full of feminist activists trying to function in a hierarchical, political organization:
I’m at my first meeting like a babe in the woods, and all this screaming is happening. I’m sitting next to this very attractive, stately, classy-looking African American woman, and she turns to me and says, “Get up there and stop this noise.” And I’m looking around, and I’m looking at her, and I said, “Excuse me, are you talking to me?” So I go up there, and I said, “Oh my God, what do I do?” And I scream into the mike, and everybody stops. And I said, “If everyone would speak one at a time, I betcha we’d even have something we could vote on.” And everybody started to applaud. And I’m going back to my seat, and this big woman says to me, “Who told you to do that, kid?” I said, “That woman over there.” And she said, “And who are you?” I said, “Midge Costanza. I’m from Rochester, New York.”
Of course, Costanza had been sitting with the New York delegation: the “stately African American” woman was Representative Shirley Chisholm, and the “big woman” none other than Representative Bella Abzug.
It’s a great story about a female politician becoming a feminist — and is probably not true in some key respects. I am skeptical that a woman active in New York state politics for thirteen years did not recognize Bella Abzug, undoubtedly wearing one of her signature wide-brimmed hats. And it was also hard to imagine that Costanza did not recognize Chisholm, who in 1968 had become the first African-American woman elected to Congress, as the woman who ordered her to the podium. And could Costanza — who had fought her way up one of the toughest Democratic state machines in the country, who would be elected to the Rochester City Council in 1974, who would become a Vice Mayor, and then coordinate the Carter campaign in upstate New York in 1976 — have been that tentative and naïve?
On the other hand, the story conveys another truth: how fragile the turning point from activism to formal politics was for women. Moving a radical feminist agenda through state and federal legislation — including the legalization of abortion, since Roe v. Wade would not be decided until the following year — represented a real break with the forms of activism and protest that had defined the movement since its birth less than five years earlier. Radical feminism was also coming to terms with what it meant to mobilize a majority in a democratic system.
In 1972, feminists in both parties (yes, there were liberal Republicans in 1972) believed that, because women were inherently sexually, racially, nationally and class diverse, they could be powerful agents for social justice and political reform if brought together in coalition. In 1971, after having proposed legislation to end the war and the first federal gay and lesbian rights bill, Bella Abzug had mused: “This moment in history requires women to lead the movement for radical change, first because we have the potential of becoming the largest individual movement; second, because our major interests are in common with the other oppressed groups; and third, because we have never had a chance to make mistakes in government and so we have no mistakes to defend. Men have made the world the way it is.”
Men have made the world the way it is.
So feminists also made it their job to re-make men, and particularly make politicians. When Midge Costanza delivered New York State to Jimmy Carter in 1972, she was rewarded with a desk steps away from the new president. As director of the Office of Public Liaison, she hoped to forge a collaboration between the Carter administration and advocacy organizations like the NWPC that would make Abzug’s dream a reality. But this was not to be. The relationship of political feminists to the Carter organization had been rocky from the start. At the 1976 convention, the NWPC had put forward a plank demanding that women and men be equally represented on the 1980 platform committee. While Abzug negotiated with the party leadership behind closed doors, feminist delegates raised hell with a good old-fashioned demonstration. In the convention hall, a women of color caucus charged the podium demanding to be recognized, accusing the chair of racism when they were not. It “was total bedlam,” Eleanor Smeal, later President of the National Organization for Women, remembered. “I think the Carter people were totally traumatized.”
Although Carter agreed to their demands, and may have hired Costanza primarily to buffer himself from feminist activists, his relationship to the movement deteriorated further, foundering in the summer of 1977 over women’s health care — specifically, his deeply felt opposition to abortion. In a news conference on July 12, responding to legislation introduced by pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL), Carter announced that he too did not support the allocation of federal Medicaid funds for abortions and he would sign the legislation if it came to his desk.
Only four years after Roe v. Wade, abortion on demand had already become a political rallying point for feminism — and for its conservative opposition. For the time, Carter’s stance on abortion was as much of a calamity for the movement, and for the poor, as last week’s attempts to repeal Obamacare. Practically speaking, the proposed ban on using Medicare funds for abortion de-funded $600,000 worth of procedures in New York State alone. In a memo to Carter, Karen Mulhauser, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) accused him of believing that his religious and moral values were superior to those of “millions of Americans who support the right to choose.” Abortion was a legal medical procedure, Mulhauser argued; failure to fund it through Medicare constituted structural discrimination against the poor. Furthermore, Mulhauser lectured, Carter’s failure to support medical justice in the United States was hypocritical, given his campaign pledge to support human rights around the globe.
From within the Carter White House, Midge Costanza stood up to lead the opposition. On July 16, she convened an impromptu meeting of 40 sub-Cabinet level women and a few men to formulate a response to pressure Carter. “I have received an overwhelming number of phone calls from public interest groups, individuals and White House staff,” Costanza wrote in a memo to her boss, “expressing concern and even anger over your remarks at yesterday’s news conference concerning the controversial issue of Federal funding for abortions.” Costanza also offered him a compromise: some callers, she noted, had asked if Carter could agree to support “medically necessary” abortions, a common dodge for procuring a safe procedure before Roe v. Wade.
But Carter was unmoved. The margins of Costanza’s memo, now in the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, are littered with his notes: “no,” and “If I had this much influence on state legislation, ERA would have passed.” Carter closed the door firmly to further debate with Costanza and his rebellious staff. “My opinion was well-defined to U.S. during campaign,” he wrote at the bottom of the memo. “My statement is actually more liberal than I feel personally. J.”
Costanza refused to accept the President’s determination to end federal funding for abortion, an admirably stubborn character trait that would also cause her to lose her job in a matter of months. She coordinated a full court press to try to change the President’s mind. In the frenzied days of organizing, virtually every activist grassroots organization fighting for reproductive choice, including NOW, New York City Planned Parenthood, the Population Crisis Commission, and Planned Parenthood of D.C. came to the White House. One group of visitors declared that the President’s decision was “racist, sexist and classist;” another suggested that he might benefit from a consciousness-raising session. In response to Carter’s view that adoption was a reasonable alternative to abortion, one activist asked: “Are we setting poor women up to be breeders for the rich?” A list of people who were to be contacted by Costanza to pressure Carter included unions, the Congressional Black Caucus, his minister and his wife Roslyn.
Carter fumed publicly at a show of defiance that revealed insubordination and turmoil in his administration. On July 18, he interrupted a Cabinet meeting to express “his amazement that his own appointees had used the Executive Office Building to pressure him on the abortion issue.” The message, journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in their nationally syndicated column, “was clear: After I have made a decision, don’t pressure me to change it.”
He didn’t. On September 30, the legislation passed, and Carter signed it into law. But this moment was the first crack in the administration’s wall: Carter’s relationship with feminists, a key constituency, went sour, and may have cost him re-election in 1980. .
The comparisons to last week’s health care battle are inexact, to be sure. Collins and Murkowski are senators, not staffers. They also succeeded, whereas Costanza and her allies did not. The Hyde Amendment has been reauthorized every year, and one of the first acts of Trump’s Republican Congress was, in the words of Majority leader Paul Ryan, to “make it permanent” by passing the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act on January on January 24, 2017.
But by threatening the health care of working women and their families, Donald Trump, like Jimmy Carter, may have gone to a place with American women that he won’t recover from. In addition, Senators Murkowski and Collins (who, like other Republican women and unlike Republican men, caucus regularly with Democratic women) have also created a glimmer of hope that the vision for feminism imagined forty years ago, one that dissolved when voters began to peel away to the right and to the left after Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, might still have possibilities. In this feminism, bequeathed from that generation that took the stage in 1972 — Midge Costanza, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and others — women, whether they are Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, stand united for health care justice — particularly when men make the world the way it is.
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter .