Midge Costanza was one of the unlikeliest of White House insiders. But for a time during the seventies, this "loud-mouthed, pushy little broad" with no college education was a prominent focal point of the American culture wars. Her story has been largely forgotten in the intervening years, but it is one that tells a rich history of the public emergence of the debates that have defined the feminist movement and sexual politics to the current day. Jimmy Carter selected her as his assistant - the first woman to hold such a post - and tasked her with bringing the views of special interest groups to the president. In particular she championed abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the ERA, and feminist leaders held hope that her presence in the White House signaled an auspicious future for the movement. Costanza felt strongly that the Democratic Party needed to shift left, and she publically challenged the Evangelical president's judgment on more than one occasion. His administration occurred at the peak of feminist activism and diversity in Washington, as organizations lobbied for issues raised by radical feminists, low-income women, and women of color.
Nevertheless, there were remarkably few feminist policy gains during this period. The lack of progress is particularly surprising given Carter's campaign promises to the women's movement and the presence of large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. While Costanza struggled to have an impact in the White House, Americans were increasingly divided on the very issues for which she fought. The emergence of the religious right and the culture wars it precipitated lent unexpected urgency and notoriety to Costanza's actions. She failed in her mission and was quickly marginalized within the White House and by feminists, who criticized her for her lack of influence and savvy. In this book, Doreen Mattingly draws on Costanza's personal papers, never before made available to the public, to resurrect the story of this fascinating and controversial woman. In doing so Mattingly tells a wider, but heretofore neglected, story of the hopeful yet fraught era of gender politics in late 70s Washington - a history that is not just important to US women's and presidential history but which continues to resonate in politics today.