The woman who opposed equality with men: Phyllis Schlafly and the real history behind Mrs. America
Women, according to Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s, did not really want equality with men – rather, they wanted the right to stay home and be homemakers. Fiercely opposed to the women’s liberation movement in America, Schlafly argued it would not only strip housewives of their privileges, but also lead to same-sex marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms, and women being drafted into the armed forces
Now, a new TV drama starring Cate Blanchett revisits the 1970s fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) – and Schlafly’s movement against it. Here, historian Kimberly A Hamlin explores the questions at the core of Mrs. America and the debate about the ERA that still rages on today…
Are women people? Or are they best defined as wives and mothers? This is what Americans still debate when they discuss the Equal Rights Amendment, which nearly became law in the 1970s. In March 1972 the ERA – a proposed constitutional amendment to provide for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex – overwhelming passed both houses of Congress and was soon ratified by 35 of the required 38 states.
But then, a savvy politician disguised as a housewife turned her attention to defeating the ERA and, along with it, the idea that women were equal to men. Phyllis Schlafly ignited a national movement by arguing that women were fundamentally different from men. Rather than wanting equality with men, Schlafly argued that women wanted the right to stay home and be homemakers. She and her allies redefined women’s equality as fundamentally opposed to “family values” and founded an organisation to fight the ERA: called STOP ERA, which stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”. Together they brought the ERA ratification to a grinding halt.
Mrs. America, the limited series that debuted on FX on Hulu in April (and on BBC Two in July), explores the heated debates surrounding the 1970s efforts to ratify the ERA through the eyes of Schlafly and the feminists she fought against.
What was the Equal Rights Amendment?
The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul, the American suffrage leader who had been radicalised by her time in England working with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union. After the 19th Amendment enfranchised women in 1920, Paul envisioned the ERA as the logical next step in the long march for women’s equality.
At the time, the state considered all women as mothers whether or not they had – or ever wanted to have – children (the 1908 US Supreme Court decision in Muller v Oregon had ruled that women should be considered “a class by herself” because of their reproductive capacities). By the early 1920s, more than 1,000 state laws contained sex-based provisions, most of which were designed to protect female labourers from dangerous workplace conditions. Rather than fight them one-by-one, Paul reasoned it would be more expedient to pass a blanket amendment outlawing all sex-based laws. The text of the ERA reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
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For the next 50 years, women and labour activists debated the ERA. If the ERA passed, would that mark the end of protective legislation, which could endanger women? Proponents of the ERA countered that all workers should be entitled to equal pay, equal opportunities, and workplace safety, regardless of their sex. These arguments eventually won out. By the early 1970s, prominent labour unions, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), joined women’s rights groups in supporting the ERA.
For many viewers, the most revelatory aspect of Mrs. America may be its vibrant depiction of the golden era of the early 1970s when Republican presidents signed feminist legislation into law; when feminist television shows such as Mary Tyler Moore garnered top ratings; when lawmakers protected girls’ right to equal education including participation in sports; and when it seemed not only possible but inevitable that federal laws would endorse equality for women. Indeed, many who followed the struggle over the ERA believed it would have been ratified in 1975 or 1976 had it not been for Schlafly and her allies, who convinced a significant portion of Americans that equality for women came only at the expense of marriage, family, and children.
Who was Phyllis Schlafly and what views did she support?
Phyllis Schlafly was a mother of six from Illinois with a master’s degree in political science from Radcliffe College, who later became a skilled lawyer. She rose to national prominence in 1964 after her self-published book, A Choice Not An Echo, sold more than three million copies and helped secure the Republican presidential nomination for conservative candidate Barry Goldwater.
With her signature pearls and ideal homemaker image, Schlafly brought to the Republican party thousands of its most loyal volunteers: white women. Women, according to Schlafly, did not really want equality with men. Women wanted the right to stay home and be homemakers. The organisation she founded to fight the ERA was called STOP ERA, which stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”.
What Schlafly supported was nonsense, said the leaders of the ERA campaign. Women deserved the right to be autonomous: to have control over their bodies (the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade legalised abortion and galvanised Schlafly’s allies against the ERA); to pursue whatever job they wanted; and to not be defined by their marital status.
While many factors – including lobbying by corporations that did not want to pay women equal wages, and by the insurance industry, the business models of which are based on sex-based actuarial tables – came together to slow ratification, historians credit Phyllis Schlafly with the ERA’s failure.
Who were the prominent feminists who fought for the ERA?
Another best-selling 1960s book had made women’s rights front-page news: The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan, a seasoned labour organiser also disguised as a housewife, diagnosed “the problem that has no name” then afflicting thousands of middle- and upper-class housewives like herself. Women who had come of age in the late 1940s and 1950s had been promised total fulfilment in marriage and motherhood, only to find themselves feeling depressed and unfulfilled.
Friedan used the momentum from her book to solidify a national network of women with similar concerns. She helped found The National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, and the group soon made the ratification of the ERA a top priority.
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Where NOW sought changes in the law (modelled on the Civil Rights Movement and its signature achievements including the Civil Rights Act of 1964), younger women and women of colour who had come of age in the anti-war and anti-racism movements of the 1960s sought changes in the culture more broadly.
In the most well-known of these feminist cultural protests, more than 200 women travelled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to protest the 1968 Miss America Pageant. Carrying signs with slogans such as “If You Want Meat, Go to the Butcher”, women rejected the commodification of their bodies and the larger symbolism of the pageant, which had become popular in the 1920s as a backlash against women voting.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, introduced in episode two of Mrs. America, did not attend the 1968 protest, but she helped spread its message through her writing, activism, and in the pages of Ms. Magazine which she helped launch in late 1971 as a feminist alternative to women’s magazines funded by beauty ads.
By the early 1970s, Steinem was – and remains – one of the most recognisable faces of American feminism. Fighting for “reproductive freedom” (a phrase she coined) and equality in all spheres, Steinem also used her star power to campaign for female politicians including Shirley Chisholm, profiled in episode three of Mrs. America, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president. Chisholm fought tirelessly for civil rights, worker’s rights, and women’s rights, and her 1972 presidential campaign galvanised young voters and people of colour across the country. Chisholm championed the ERA because, as she argued in her 1970 floor statement, sexism was the “most subtle, most pervasive, and most institutionalized form of prejudice that exists”.
As Friedan, Steinem, Chisholm and her colleagues in the House (such as Rep. Bella Abzug, another character in Mrs. America) fought for equality in the home, in politics, in culture, and in the workplace, Schlafly synthesised ERA opponents into one of the most effective political movements in American history: “family values” conservatives. Schlafly ignited fears that the ERA would not only strip housewives of their privileges, but also lead to same-sex marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms, and women being drafted into the armed services. These are the fears that ultimately squashed the ERA.
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What is the status of the ERA today?
Phyllis Schlafly died in 2016, but she lived to see the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, whose candidacy she endorsed, and the resurgence of the ERA. In the aftermath of Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement, ERA proponents revived ratification efforts. On 15 January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, but recent ratifications will count only if Congress extends the ratification deadline.
‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’; within these three titles, viewers can glimpse the main ideas undergirding Mrs. America. Before the 1970s, women were divided into two categories: married and unmarried, Mrs or Miss. ERA proponents proposed Ms as an alternative – a title that indicated personhood (and gender), but not marital status.
Are women people, or are women best defined as wives and mothers? This is the core question of Mrs. America and ongoing debates about the ERA.
Kimberly Hamlin is a historian who writes about women, sex, and politics, and the author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (WW Norton 2020). You can find her on Twitter at @ProfessorHamlin
Mrs America begins on BBC Two on Wednesday 8 July 2020 at 9pm
This article was first published in April 2020