In 1972, it seemed that ratifying the equal rights amendment was almost a sure thing.
First proposed to Congress in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul, the proposed 27th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which stated that “equal rights under the law must not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state because of sex, ”had passed with bipartisan and public support and was sent to state legislatures for ratification.
But the ERA included a seven-year clause for the ratification deadline (which Congress extended until 1982), and although 35 of the 38 state legislatures required by a three-quarter majority had voted to ratify the amendment , his supporters had not counted on a conservative popular movement led by activist and lawyer Phyllis Schlafly which would ultimately lead to the defeat of the ERA, bringing down three states.
“What I am defending are the real rights of women”, Schlafly said at the time. “A woman should have the right to be at home as a wife and a mother.”
ERA: open to interpretation
Don Critchlow, author of Phyllis Schlafly and the popular right and the future rightand the Katzin family professor at Arizona State University says one of the problems was that the amendment was loose in wording.
“It meant that it was going to have to be interpreted by the courts and she – and her large number of followers – feared that the courts would interpret it as abortion on demand, gay marriage and women in the project.” he says. “In addition, she believed that much of the legislation protecting women in matters of pay and gender discrimination had already been enacted.”
ERA went as far as it did, thanks to the work of second-wave feminists who had lobbied for years for its adoption. Those who fought for the amendment included such figures as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Jane Fonda. Brandy Faulkner, visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, says the feminist drive has influenced not only Congress, but also the United States Supreme Court. Faulkner points out that Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried people to have contraception on the same basis as married couples, was adopted in 1971 – just one year after Congress adopted the ERA.
Schlafly’s strategy to defeat ERA was to convince women that equality between men and women was not desirable.
“She always painted the worst scenarios that, when juxtaposed against the lives of average white women at the time, led many to believe that inequality was not all that bad after all,” said Faulkner. “She was a biological determinist who thought that physiological differences between men and women should be the main determinant of their roles. She argued for what she thought was a privileged position for women in society.”
An example offered by Schlafly was that women did not have to register for the project – a fact that Schlafly argued was a female privilege. Schlafly also applauded the fact that for most welfare programs, women were assumed to be dependents of their husbands, which gave them entitlement to certain public services and benefits.
Schlafly’s conservative values led her to firmly oppose feminism in all its forms, says Faulkner, and ERA was certainly on the feminist agenda.
“She feared that greater gender equality would cause moral decline in society by changing the roles that women traditionally had,” she said.
Shlafly’s effective advocacy
Critchlow, author of In defense of populism (which will be released in the fall of 2020), explains Schlafly, who died at the age of 92 in 2016, built it through her work with the National Federation of Republican Women, which became the basis of Stop ERA.
“She was eloquent, quite intelligent and extremely well organized and she was deadly on the scene of the debate,” he said.
Schlafly’s strategy was to organize grassroots women in different states in order to pressure state legislatures to stop or cancel the move to ERA.
“I am absolutely convinced that it would have happened without his participation,” he said. “She was able to organize the Stop ERA movement on her own.”
As the Stop ERA movement gained momentum, adds Critchlow, it was able to reach new ridings, particularly in the southern battlefield states.
“The women involved in southern state organizations have been able to tap into churches, especially evangelical churches,” he says. “Schlafly was Catholic, but she was able to reach not only Protestants, but also Mormons, as well as some traditional Jews.”
By the late 1970s, Schlafly had grown in importance to oppose the feminist movement. His book, The power of positive women, helped cement his sequel. But Schlafly’s public opinion remained divided.
“The women who opposed her absolutely despised her,” says Critchlow.
After the defeat of ERA, Schlafly and Stop ERA organized a party, according to a 1982 report in the Washington Post.
“Ronald Reagan sent a congratulatory telegram”, according to the Publish, “The group played “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead”. Conservative Digest editor John Lofton, who wore dark glasses and a striped party hat, said, “We are here to celebrate a death, to dance at a grave. “