In the winter of 2006, as part of my college honors thesis on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), I boarded a plane and traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to interview Phyllis Schlafly. The focus of my paper was on the national debates Schlafly had with Karen DeCrow, the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) during much of the campaign to pass the ERA. I already had spent multiple weeks with DeCrow, where she was based near my hometown in Western New York. It was time, I decided, to meet her foe.
My notes say we talked for an hour and a half. I remember it as three. She looked exactly the same as every picture and video I had seen of her: immaculate makeup, a pastel blue skirt-suit, and her trademark meringue of hair. Though I’d known she was in her early 80s when I visited, she still seemed so much older than I thought she'd be, and smaller. I suppose it’s hard for nightmares to live up to one’s imagination.
I had started the project with a kind of morbid curiosity about Schlafly and the ERA. It was the same kind of curiosity that had inspired me in third grade to read my elementary school's entire library section on the Titanic. How could a ship that was never going to sink, sink on its maiden voyage? How could a woman be against rights for women?
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.
While her trained delegates worked at the local level, Schlafly herself represented the movement for all national media and television requests. She debated DeCrow over 50 times between 1974 and 1978. And unlike Decrow, Schlafly also attended smaller functions where she would stage debates with local ERA advocates. In addition to running the Eagle Forum, she wrote and published The Phyllis Schlafly Report each month. In 1978, in the very midst of leading the national campaign against the ERA, she attended and graduated from law school at the Washington University of St. Louis. Oh, and she also raised six children.
Schlafly was the woman who organized and empowered women to fight the organization and empowerment of women. She did it all, and she did it against all odds. By the time STOP ERA was founded, 30 states––out of the necessary 38–– had already passed the ERA. And she shut it down in 10 years’ time, just her and an organization that she created. It was impossible not to be in awe of that, if not admire it. A little like it's hard to hate a majestic iceberg for sinking the Titanic.
When I asked Karen DeCrow what she thought of Phyllis Schlafly, I remember she smiled and said she and Phyllis always got along. “I used to say that if I ever had a daughter, I'd want her to grow up to be a housewife, just like Phyllis Schlafly,” DeCrow told me and laughed.
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