Rush Limbaugh, who died Wednesday at the age of 70, was the radio voice of the right, a pioneer in the kind of political commentary popular on opinion-based cable shows today. For decades, he used “The Rush Limbaugh Show” to lob bigoted attacks on feminists and other liberals, and his bombast shaped many of today’s political debates.
Christina Wolbrecht, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who has studied political parties over time as well as women’s rights, has written about his influence in the Republican Party. The party had been seen as a champion of women’s rights, she said, but commentary from Limbaugh helped propel the narrative that supporting women in positions of power was a danger.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The 19th: From your work studying the GOP and women’s rights, can you talk about Rush Limbaugh’s legacy? How far was his reach?
Christina Wolbrecht: The Republican Party underwent a lot of transformations from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s into a more socially conservative party. And part of that story had to do with so-called culture war issues, including among them one of the most prominent: the question of women’s rights. There were kind of two main strands of arguments against women’s rights as second-wave feminism has defined it. One is the small-government argument: Government should not be involved in telling businesses who to hire and what benefits to offer.
The other argument is articulated more as sort of in opposition to women in nontraditional roles. Phyllis Schlafly would be a really classic example of both of those things. She’s a small-government conservative, but also fundamentally represented this discomfort with women who tried to do things beyond what women have traditionally done: care for children, take care of the home, etc.
So Limbaugh comes out of that second tradition, but I think it’s important to say he takes it even further in many ways — this defining of feminism as an attack on the American way of life, and an attack on sort of this very masculine idea about political power and strength. Women in every sort of extreme stereotype: Women are harpies, women are ball breakers, women just want to take power away from men, women are sluts.
And those ideas have been really powerful. There’s a difference between saying, on an ideological basis, government should not pay for child care. It’s a different argument to say attempts to do [that] are challenging traditional masculinity, are an attack on our rights and our freedoms. So in a sense, his legacy is the sum total of what he said, but it’s also those most outrageous things.
The 19th: Limbaugh coined the term “feminazi.” What does that mean? How did people respond to it? Is the term still used today?
To say that feminism is like Nazism is to say feminism is murderous, is ethnocentric violence. When you use phrases like that, it becomes harder to say, “All right, more women in this society are going to work. What are the right policies to support women? How should we think about that?” That’s a conversation we can sit down and have, but one does not sit down and rationally discuss things with a group that you’ve called Nazis. They have no right to be a part of the conversation.
I think those basic ideas that feminism is an attack on traditional masculinity, that feminism is an attempt to control how people live their lives, remain a powerful argument against feminism. I don’t think it’s too far to go to link that then to the sexism that we see in the sort of extreme MAGA right in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. I think [Limbaugh] was an incredibly powerful and important voice in spreading that idea. I think it has been taken up by lots of other people and in lots of other ways that have continued to make that idea, the “feminazi” idea — even if we don’t use that phrase — a force in politics.
The 19th: How did Limbaugh shape the public’s perception of women?
He provided a very prominent space for articulating views that, some would have argued, were supposed to have been antiquated or sort of pushed out of polite company. You don’t have to agree with Limbaugh, that, you know, a woman who wants access to birth control is a slut. But you can still think, “Why should the government subsidize immoral women who are having sex outside of prescribed heterosexual committed relationships?”
I think the way to think about his impact is those sorts of outrageous over-the-top statements don’t necessarily mean that all of his listeners agree, but they opened up a lot of space for less extreme but still very dangerous and harmful rhetoric.
The 19th: Can you talk a little bit about how Limbaugh framed women’s rights in the GOP? You mention he frames it as a “threat to the American way of life.” What did this mean for how people saw women in places of power?
One of the things that made [Limbaugh] powerful is that when you draw on these attitudes and beliefs and ideals and images that people already have, and make new connections for them into contemporary politics, you can have a really enormous impact. So the Limbaugh world in which strong, independent men settle the West, create this great democracy, become a world power, that is not an image or an understanding of America that has a place for women’s leadership. Women can go along and cook the meals on that prairie, and women can support the soldiers as they go to war. But women aren’t creating the government. They’re not making the laws. They’re not doing these things that make America, America.
What Limbaugh did is to help make feminism an urgent threat in the minds of the modern Republican Party. It’s not enough to just say “Some women are going to work now” and “Some women are gonna run for office” and “Some women will be exceptions.” But rather [he said] that women’s power is in fact a threat to this very foundational idea of who we are as Americans. That’s all a response to the idea that women’s power is taking away from traditional masculine power.
The 19th: How did he connect with his audiences and get a following?
He was a really brilliant entertainer. He knew his audience. He knew how to use humor, but also emotion [and] visceral imagery. So was there a market for what he said? Absolutely. Did he also help build his market by helping people see, “You know how you’re frustrated in your own life? Let me give you a villain. Let me give you an explanation.” And so like any good corporation, you both identify your market and then find ways to expand it. Thirty years ago, it was really only in talk radio that you were getting these other voices and where you could focus on a more limited market. Now, that all looks really normal to us now, in the days of social media, and the internet, but Limbaugh was really especially pioneering in that sort of voice for conservatives for this sort of modern version of conservative politics.
The 19th: You wrote about how the Republican Party was “the champion of women’s rights.” When was this? Where are the parties now when it comes to women’s rights? Why did the political landscape change?
When I said that the Republican Party was what’s been identified as the party of women’s rights, what I mean is that in the ’40s and the ’50s, there was a very limited women’s rights agenda. The policies were mostly about treating men and women the same. So they were laws that said, for example, women can be drafted the same as men and women would have the same rules in the military. And there were plenty of traditional women’s rights supporters, people who had been suffragettes just a few decades before, who didn’t want these equality laws. Because basically, what they were saying is, women are held back in lots of ways, including the fact that they have children, and so laws that treat them exactly the same aren’t actually good for women.
Republicans were on the side of equality because they didn’t think the government should have specific laws for women, because they believed in a small government. They were also the party of sort of the professional classes. And so the few professional sort of women during this time period tended to be Republicans, and they told the Republican Party: “We don’t want these protective laws, we want to be able to compete with men.”
A lot is going to change in the 1960s. A lot of those protective laws the courts are going to strike down. We start talking about the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights in the late ’60s and 1970s, it’s a very different landscape. There’s been a women’s movement, there’s been changes to civil rights laws. The Republicans supported the Equal Rights Amendment since the 1940s. That all changes in the 1970s. That changes because there’s a backlash to feminism because the Republicans are becoming more conservative and are opposed to any use of the government to achieve social or economic ends.
And by 1980, very publicly, and it was a very big deal, Republicans take the ERA out of their platform with [Ronald] Reagan’s nomination in 1980. They take their first very strong pro-life stance. And that’s really where Republicans have stood for now 40 years.
The 19th: Do you think that without Limbaugh’s presence on the radio, the Republican Party could still be this “champion of women”?
He has certainly made it much more costly. He made it more costly for someone like Mitt Romney, who says, “What if we are the party that wants to support children? Why don’t we have this tax credit?” The extent [to which] those get linked to feminism, it’s very hard for Republicans to support that without looking like they’re the party of this clearly evil “feminazi agenda.” By spreading these ideas by expanding his own market, [Limbaugh] has made it harder for Republicans who still are for small government.
The 19th: Is anyone carrying Limbaugh’s torch now?
In some ways, I think that what we are seeing in our politics today, from Trump and MAGA to Q, are an extension of that “feminazi” phrase, of making these sorts of questions into battles between good and evil. You call someone a Nazi, you’re calling them evil. You’re not saying these are people who have different views about implementation than we do and we’re going to work it out. You are saying these people cannot be allowed to sit in government. I think we are reckoning with a lot of that language now.
The 19th: So there are these lasting impacts of equating feminism with evil.
I think that is indeed true.
If we think about more opportunities for women to be political leaders, people like Limbaugh make political engagement more costly for women. It is an empirical fact that there are rising levels of violence around the world against women in political leadership. And we are seeing that in the United States. We know that women are less likely to run for office because they expect it to be a very grueling and invasive experience. And when Rush Limbaugh calls a woman a slut for saying we should subsidize birth control in health care as a form of public health, that adds to an environment that makes women think it’s just not worth it.