By the time I walked into her office at the Eagle Forum—the conservative group she created that served as an umbrella organization for Stop Taking Our Privileges ERA (STOP ERA)— that January day, my feelings on Schlafly had evolved from seeing her as a nemesis. Sure, I disagreed with her politically. But it was impossible to look at the work she had done and not recognize the skill, savvy, and frankly, genius it took to build and market the STOP ERA movement. As she told me at that meeting in 2006, "Well at the start it was difficult. Who wants to be against Equal Rights? It’s a hard issue to sell.”
Some have argued that it became easier to sell in 1973 when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. Others contend that the Roe backlash is too simple a story to explain the death of the amendment and that it was part of a larger Jerry Falwell- and Schlafly-aligned “pro-family” crusade that consolidated Catholics and evangelicals against the women’s movement.
Undisputed, however, is that when it was initially ratified the ERA enjoyed a flurry of national support. After the Senate passed the proposed amendment in March 1972, Hawaii held a special session of its state legislature five minutes later so it could adopt the amendment unanimously. The following day Delaware, New Hampshire, and Nebraska passed it. The next day, Idaho and Iowa jumped on board. Twenty-four more states ratified during the amendment’s “honeymoon period.”
As states were busy ratifying, Schlafly was setting up a movement that would help put an end to that honeymoon. Many look at Schlafly as a defender of femininity; a 1950s housewife who staged rebellion to save her breed. She was anything but. Schlafly was a veteran of politics with years of elite education and political experience (though little of it successful) to build on: She was an honors graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a masters program at Radcliffe. She twice ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress. She authored dozens of political (some might say conspiratorial) books and she was active in national Republican politics for decades before picking up the STOP ERA mantle.
Few that joined her STOP ERA cause could match her resume. That day from across her desk, she described her volunteers as “housewives” who “didn’t even know where their state capital was.” She taught them how to give STOP ERA talking points at their local representative’s office and she taught them how to send thank you notes afterwards. She taught them how to wear the “right colors for television,” and style their hair and makeup so that all STOP ERA representatives looked the same—looked like her. She held seminars where she played videos of herself speaking and would have them mimic her ability to give “20-second sound bites.” She taught them to stay on message. She taught them how to smile.