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Summary & Analysis

Women's Heroes

Angelina Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Betty Friedan—the women's movement celebrates a number of activists and crusaders. But for many women, another name should be added—Phyllis Schlafly. Between 1972 and 1982, she led the fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most feminist leaders branded Schlafly a reactionary—a stooge of the far right and a traitor to her gender. But other women believe that she succeeded in preserving valuable qualities of womanhood by preventing feminist extremists from foisting a radical agenda on the nation.

The Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923. Feminists recognized that the vote alone would not correct centuries of second-class citizenship. Therefore, Alice Paul drafted the language for a constitutional amendment for Congress: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."45 But the amendment ran into considerable opposition, even from some women activists. Florence Kelly, for example, had campaigned for years for national legislation protecting women from abuses in the workplace. She feared that Paul's amendment might jeopardize the protections she had won.

Consequently, the amendment was buried in congressional committee. But it lingered in the background of national politics and, over the years, acquired increasing support. Introduced in every session of Congress, the ERA was endorsed by the Republican Party in 1940 and the Democratic Party in 1944. During the 1960s, moreover, the women's movement and the ERA were revitalized by broader forces of change in American culture and politics. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, pledged to win approval for the amendment, and in 1972, Congress finally passed a newly drafted Equal Rights Amendment to be passed along to the states for ratification. Within a week, six states had ratified the ERA; in just over a year, 30 of the required 38 states had approved the amendment.

But by then, the momentum for ratification had slowed, primarily because of the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly. In 1972, she had published a short article titled "What's Wrong with 'Equal Rights' for Women." By 1973, she had acquired a national following that pledged to defeat the ERA.

"What's Wrong with 'Equal Rights' for Women"

At first glance, it is hard to imagine why the ERA would meet any opposition. Its essential phrase guaranteed only that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." For most, it seemed a simple corollary to the Nineteenth Amendment's guarantee of voting rights. It said nothing about domestic roles, social customs, or private beliefs. It seemed only to explicitly ensure that women enjoyed the equal protection guarantees of the Constitution.

But in Schlafly's brief article, followed up by the widely circulated Phyllis Schlafly Report, she launched a multi-faceted critique of the amendment. Part of her argument addressed the legal consequences she claimed would follow ratification. She said that women would be forced into the military and would lose benefits under Social Security, and the legal presumption that husbands were responsible to support their wives would be lost. Centuries of law premised on gender difference would have to be reviewed, often, she claimed, to the detriment of women. Most dangerous, she added, were the likely changes to divorce and alimony laws. The risks to working women were also great, she charged. Employment discrimination was already prohibited under federal law, which meant that the only effect of the ERA would be to undermine the workplace protections already extended to women over the course of the twentieth century.

Schlafly's argument went beyond narrow legal issues. She also challenged the fundamental concept of "equality." Of course, access to equal education and employment should be protected, she said. But the more fundamental "differences" between the genders should be preserved. Only women were able to bear children, and American law, drawing upon centuries of Judeo-Christian tradition, paid homage to this divine responsibility. As a result, American women were "the most privileged" of "all the classes of people who ever lived." They enjoyed "the most rights and rewards, and the fewest duties."46

Schlafly's religious arguments were coupled to a celebration of America's free enterprise history. Capitalism had delivered to women refrigerators and sewing machines; it had freed women from the "backbreaking drudgery" of the past. Women's real liberators were not the "straggly-haired women on television talk shows and picket lines," but rather Thomas Edison, Elias Howe, and "Clarence Birdseye who invented the process for freezing food."47

In other words, according to Schlafly, the Equal Rights Amendment was a horribly misguided proposal driven by a radical minority of "women's libbers." It was, she said, anti-woman and anti-family. If its proponents would rather reject marriage and motherhood, they were free to do so, but "most women would rather cuddle a baby than a typewriter or factory machine." The vast majority were not interested in trading their "birthright of the special privilege of American women—for the mess of pottage called the Equal Rights Amendment."48

Fighting Back

Supporters of the ERA answered that the only way to insure that legal protections for women increased, and were not rolled back, was to include explicit language in the Constitution guaranteeing equal protection under the law. The legislative protections extended by one Congress could all be undone by another. And the unpredictabilities within the political process were replicated in the judicial system where local courts issued conflicting rulings in cases involving gender. A clear constitutional statement would provide direction for the courts and unmuddy the current legal status of women.

The merits of these opposing arguments aside, conventional wisdom suggested that the ERA would be approved before the seven-year limit for ratification expired in 1979. By 1977, thirty-five of the required thirty-eight states had already ratified the ERA. Every president during the decade endorsed the amendment (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm), and First Lady Betty Ford campaigned aggressively for ratification. Pro-ERA forces mounted impressive fundraising drives and secured the support of mainstream political organizations like the League of Women Voters, the National Education Association, and the American Association of University Women. The ERA even received favorable treatment in "traditional" women's magazines like Redbook, Family Circle, and Good Housekeeping. The National Organization for Women, which along with ERAmerica led the campaign for ratification, claimed almost a quarter million members; in comparison, Phyllis Shlafly's Eagle Forum counted only 60,000. And at mid-decade the broader political context still leaned to the left. In the wake of Richard Nixon's scandalous resignation from the presidency in 1974, only 18% of the public identified themselves as Republicans.49

Grassroots Femininity

Yet despite all this, Schlafly's tactics proved more effective than those of NOW and ERAmerica in the states still undecided. Schlafly relied on grassroots political pressure with a distinctive (or archaic, according to her critics) twist. She mobilized armies of women to knock on doors in the state capital and, without apology, used femininity and flirtation to turn the heads of middle-aged male legislators. "Get Maude Rogers and that pretty young girl who had the baby and the nice looking redhead to commit themselves to talk personally to ten legislators," Schlafly instructed her lieutenants in one state.50 And operating under the premise that there were two ways to a man's heart, she armed her foot soldiers with homemade pies and cakes.

The pro-ERA forces also tried some direct political lobbying. But they tended to rely more on the sorts of mass action learned in the 1960s and media blitzes financed by traditional fundraising efforts. Rallies and parades headlined by Hollywood celebrities and political heavyweights were held in battleground states. And with dollars donated by a host of supporters, including the AFL-CIO, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, the United Methodist Church, and the National Education Association, ERA supporters bought radio and television ads to spread their message.

The ERA: A "Radical Front"

Schlafly's approach was highly effective with the state legislatures debating ratification. Among the general public, she seemed to be winning the war as well. One of the reasons was that many within the pro-ERA coalition saw the amendment as only part of a more ambitious reform agenda that included reproduction rights, federally financed day-care centers, and federal protection for same-sex marriage. One 1973 NOW pamphlet called for these measures as well as the removal of all barriers to military service and religious ordination. It also criticized community service and voluntarism as the means by which women were exploited.

However logically linked these issues might have been, their coupling with the ERA allowed opponents to easily characterize the amendment as far more than a simple quest for equality. A more comprehensive constellation of values and institutions were under radical attack, they suggested, under the deceptive guise of "equality."

The stridency within pro-ERA rhetoric lent further credence to the argument that the amendment was only a front for a more extreme agenda. Schlafly was labeled a stooge of conservative manipulators; her critics linked her at various times to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and the John Birch Society. Similarly, her supporters were characterized as uneducated and unsophisticated—barefoot and pregnant and unable to recognize the poverty of their own condition. But in fact, both sides were demographically more alike than unalike. Education and income levels were similar; many of the amendment's opponents were college educated, worked outside the home, and had above average incomes. And clearly, anti-ERA activists were politically empowered and engaged; they did not defer all political questions to men.

There was, however, one huge statistical variation—98% of those opposing the ERA belonged to churches; among supporters, the number ranged from 31 to 48%.51 Opponents of the ERA were linked culturally and philosophically more than socially. They embraced traditional notions of marriage and family, and they viewed recent trends within family and child-rearing patterns with alarm. Set against this fact, the ability of movement leaders to associate the ERA with broader challenges to the traditional family and marriage was crucial. Schlafly's greatest success lay in convincing the majority of American women that "women's libbers," nursing radical visions of same-sex marriage and abortion on demand, did not speak for them.

The Defeat of the ERA

In 1979, Congress extended the deadline for ratification of the ERA until 1982. But by that point, supporters needed far more than an additional three years. They had lost ground in state capitals and among the general public. A remarkable 1980 poll revealed that more men than women supported the ERA—after eight years of debate only 47% of the nation's women supported ratification.52 Just as ominously for ERA supporters, the broader political winds had shifted. By the end of the decade, conservative Republicans had regrouped around a series of issues—the Panama Canal Treaty, US-Soviet relations, SALT II, prayer in school, abortion—and a charismatic new leader, Ronald Reagan. At the 1980 Republican Convention that nominated the former California governor for the presidency, roughly two-thirds of the delegates opposed the ERA; for the first time since 1936, the amendment was not endorsed in the party platform.53

Supporters of the ERA blamed their defeat on a variety of factors—the rise of the moral majority, the economic stagnation of the 1970s, a loss of nerve among political moderates in conservative states. But feminist author Sylvia Ann Hewlett offered probably the most accurate assessment: "The ERA was defeated not by Barry Goldwater, Jerry Falwell, or any combination of male chauvinist pigs, but by women who were alienated by a feminist movement the values of which seemed elitist and disconnected from the lives of ordinary women."54

The Equal Rights Amendment has been reintroduced in every Congress since 1982. Some believe that the political climate is right for another attempt at ratification. But supporters should remember that Phyllis Schlafly is still around. In 2009, at the age of 85, she still heads the Eagle Forum, she still publishes the Phyllis Schlafly Report, and she still thinks the ERA is a bad idea. If the battle is re-fought, will her old arguments against the amendment still fly? Or will proponents of the ERA figure out how to better connect with the majority of America's women?

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