Iconic conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly died on Monday at the age of 92, and upon hearing the news we couldn’t help fishing our old “Stop ERA” button out of the button jar and reminiscing about her glory days. The button has been kept mostly out of the light for the past many decades and is still a bright stop sign shade of red, but so much has been changed since we last wore it that it sometimes seems from a different world, and we can’t help wondering what such an endearing old anachronism as Schlafly might have made of it.
She first became involved in conservative politics as a supporter of the old school Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft before we were even born, became a noted anti-communist spokeswoman afterwards, and by the time we tuned into our first presidential election in ’64 her book-length pro-Barry Goldwater essay “A Choice Not an Echo” was selling millions of copies and making her an acknowledged leader of the supposedly sexist right. It wasn’t until the Equal Rights Amendment debate of the ’70s that she became a household name, though, and that was when we started paying attention.
The amendment was first proposed back in the Jazz Age of the ’20s, with the support of all the upper class lady folk and the flappers, but the women working in the sweatshops and on the farms felt they needed some sex-specific workplace regulations that the amendment’s language seemed to proscribe, introducing the internecine class warfare that has afflicted the feminist movement ever since, and after that it pretty much faded away. Early into the rockin’ 70s the simply stated idea 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” came roaring back, though, and for a long while it seemed pretty much an inevitability. By then it was hard to argue with the basic idea of equal rights for women, so in ’72 the ERA passed both chambers of Congress and was passed on to the states for ratification, with the backing of the platforms of both major parties and such conservative stalwarts as Ronald Reagan, and by 1977 it had been ratified by 35 of the necessary 38 states, including our very own Kansas.
By ’75 or ’76 or so, though, people were beginning to wonder what sort of peculiar policies “The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation,” which was the briefly worded second article of the amendment, and to worry what craziness the courts might find even in that short and deceptively simple and seemingly benign first article, and what sorts of devils there might be in the details of that basic idea of equal rights for women. The young folks of today might find it quaint, but there were even worries that the ERA might ultimately result women being drafted into the military and creepy guys hanging around the women’s restrooms and showers. Quainter yet, the progressives of the day scoffed at the very idea they would ever suggest such foolishness, with all that women-in-combat stuff widely reviled by a feminist movement reviled by anything militarist and a young feminist and future Supreme Court Justice named Ruth Bader Ginsburg was writing an op-ed insisting that “Separate places to disrobe, sleep, perform personal bodily functions are permitted, in some case cases required, by regard for individual privacy. Individual privacy, a right of constitutional dimension, is appropriately harmonized with the equality principle. But the the ‘potty issue’ is likely to remain one of those ultimate questions never pressed to the final solution.”
As we well recall, it made for a contentious debate. Aside from all those thorny policy questions, there was also an ongoing cultural war about the broader implications of the feminist movement. The feminists frankly claimed that adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution would simultaneously ratify their most radical notions, and of course there was a backlash to that, and in all the ensuing controversy no one was more controversial than Schlafly. She became the old-fashionedly dignified face of the anti-ERA cause by pressing the conservative case against introducing language into the constitution that could lead into all sorts of consequences, and by pushing back against the more questionable assumptions of that already overreaching feminist movement. Needless to say, she was much beloved and much reviled.
Adding to both the love and the hate was that Schlafly was an undeniably formidable force. All the women she’d inspired to Goldwater’s true blue brand of conservatism were famously described as “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” but she was harder to dismiss. The daughter of a failed businessman and a highly educated housewife, she entered Maryville College at 16 and left at 19 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a full scholarship to Radcliffe, where she earned a master’s degree in a year’s time. She worked at one of the earliest conservative think-tanks, wrote or edited 20 books, published an influential newsletter and spoke daily on more than 500 radio stations, was a regular commenter on the Columbia Broadcasting system in the ’70s and the Cable News Network in the ’80s, and always brought an old-school erudition and that old-fashionedly dignified face and a certain womanly bearing that the feminists could never quite match.
At the time Schlafly was somehow staving off any more ratifications and even getting several states to rescind while running out the clock on the Equal Rights Amendment, we were in high school and paying rapt attention. All the girls who inspired our romantic interest in those amorous days were of course avid proponents of the ERA, and then as now we were quite comfortable with their basic idea of equal rights for women, but we’ve never been able to help worrying about those devils that might be lurking in the details. We were also in favor of equal rights for all races, but had seen how that laudable idea had turned our schools in violence-ridden wastes of time, and those girls we pined for seemed to be doing well enough on their own, and the question of the draft and the “potty issue” didn’t seem something to be scoffed at. There was already a “separate but equal” precedent regarding public accommodations, with some judge or another out there eager to seize on it, and surely a law that conscripted people of one sex into combat duty but not another would violate an amendment with the plain language that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” and if it didn’t then what did it mean? Then as now we thought that having men use the men’s room and women use the women’s room was a sensible arrangement, and that sending only men off to war has had a similar social utility, and that in our society best efforts to “harmonize” such concerns with the “equality principle” the constitution ought to provide some wiggle room, which is why we wound wearing that “Stop ERA” button.
At the time we were less impressed with Schlafly’s more culturally conservative arguments for a more traditional notion of womanhood, being so very smitten with those self-fulfilled and enticingly assertive feminist girls, but after so many decades and so many changes we can’t say for sure that she was wrong about any of that. At this point we do feel vindicated for our long ago prediction that the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment wasn’t going to result in a dystopian future of barefoot pregnant women chained to stoves, and we’re pleased that all our former crushes have been free to make successes and failures of their lives, but we’ll lament seeing women being sent into combat and creepy men hanging around the ladies restrooms and showers, and we’ll continue to worry what further devils might yet be in the details of that basically sound idea of equal rights for all.
Schlafly stayed on the seen during the past controversial decades, and although we sometimes agree with her and sometimes didn’t we always had to give the opinions of such a formidable women due respect. Of course the left always hated her, and even in her more respectful obituaries there’s the old line about how she married a rich husband, and always taunted her feminist opponents by remarking how he “allowed” her to speak out, and offended the fundamental feminist principle of freedom of choice by choosing to embrace a traditional notion of womanhood. By the end of her long life the former Taft enthusiast and cultural traditionalist was embracing the candidacy of longtime Democrat and thrice-married Donald J. Trump more enthusiastically than we would have preferred, but we’ll forgive that final disagreement on the grounds that she was mostly against the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Not only is Clinton the latest devil in the details of that basically good idea about equality of the sexes, but she only got where she is due to her deal with a philandering husband, while Schlafly probably would have wound up just as prominent without help from her loving and loyal mate, and none of Schlafly’s critics will ever want to admit that.
Although she won the battle against the ERA, and scored a few other wins for conservatives since then, Schlafly seems to have lost the wars. Even the more conservative candidates in the Republican debates were endorsing the drafting of women last summer, the Republican nominee was critical of North Carolina’s attempts to retain the old restroom arrangements, and by now it’s a safe bet that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg won’t come riding to the rescue. The limited government notions of Goldwater seem hopelessly out of fashion in both parties, even if the isolationism of Taft seems to be making a comeback on the Republican side, and we can’t imagine that Schlafly died happy about it any of it. All the more reason we’re going to miss that formidable woman, and hope that she died happy with the personal life that her brave choices created.
— Bud Norman