‘Mrs. America’ and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment

FX’s newest series, Mrs. America, tells the story of the ultra-conservative anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly and her decade-long crusade to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) was bitterly opposed to the E.R.A. and is credited with having engineered its defeat.  The proposed 27th Amendment to the Constitution would have held that discrimination on account of sex was not permissible under any circumstances, and that men and women were equal in the eyes of the law when it comes to divorce, property and employment. Though the Amendment passed through Congress, it fell short of ratification by just three states thanks largely to the demonization campaign launched by Phyllis Schlafly with support from right-wing groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization formerly known as the White Citizens’ Council. She passed away at long last in 2016 at the ripe old age of 92.

The series takes place in the years 1971-1980, and each of the nine episodes is named after one of the women the series primarily focuses on.  Among these women are Shirley Chisolm (the first Black woman to run for President), Bella Azbug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Brenda Feigan-Fasteau, Jill Ruckelshaus, and of course the enemy of the women’s liberation movement Phyllis Schlafly. Even though Schlafly made her opposition to women’s liberation the hill she was ready to die on, many have pointed out that she was one of the most liberated women in the United States of America at the time. Despite her long history of bashing women and childcare, Schlafly hired domestic workers to help raise her 6 kids while she went out to fight for her cause. She ran for a congressional seat as a Republican as early as 1951 when her 1st child was still an infant. At the time there were only 10 women in the House of Representatives. Her campaign platform was McCarthyism, seeking out communists who’d allegedly infiltrated American institutions. She accused her Democratic opponent Melvin Price of being a communist sympathizer and directly accused the Truman White House of being in cahoots with the Soviet Union and the Reds in Mao’s China. The White House, she warned, was trying to push “socialized medicine and universal military training.” In 1964 she wrote a book in support of GOP nominee for President Barry Goldwater titled A Voice Not an Echo, which could very well have played a role in the right-winger’s nomination. (93% of all delegates reported having read it, while 26% said that it influenced their vote.) At the same convention she served as a delegate for the Republican nominee, who ran on a platform in opposition to Civil Rights. In 1973, while still having 4 young children at home, she announced she’d be going to law school, all the while insisting that a woman’s place was primarily in the house. She was by no means the stay-at-home mom she advocated all women should be. She justified the seeming contradiction between her actions and her words by stating that “the only person’s permission I had to get was my husband’s.”

In 1972, Schlafly formed S.T.O.P. (Stop Taking Our Privileges) E.R.A. after it appeared the Equal Rights Amendment was headed for ratification. The ERA passed in the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority (354-23) in October, 1971. In March, 1972 it passed the Senate 84-8, and in a matter of months it would be ratified by 30 of the 38 states needed. Schlafly and her group of ultra-conservative women embarked on a campaign of demonization and disinformation, pressuring legislators to reject the ERA or else they would be opening the door for same-sex marriage and unisex bathrooms. Among the talking points and fear tactics used to sink the ERA:

  • that it would undermine traditional family values
  • remove legal protections for wives
  • subject women to military draft
  • remove barriers to women in combat
  • promote abortion on demand
  • clear the path for “homosexual marriage”
  • require that public bathrooms be unisex
  • promote equal pay for women

The expiration date for ratification of the ERA was in June, 1982. Phyllis Schlafly and the STOP ERA campaign would essentially run the clock and kill it for good.

Perhaps the biggest stain on Schlafly’s decades-long career (who am I kidding, her whole life was a stain) was her willingness to ally with the most extreme racist and reactionary forces in American life in order to achieve her objectives, ultimately attracting the approval of white nationalists and Neo-Confederates. Her version of white identity politics would ultimately be adopted by the Republican Party, and it should come as a surprise to no one that she was one of Donald Trump’s earliest supporters when he announced his campaign for the presidency in 2015. (In his own words they were “kindred spirts”.) Schlafly was instrumental in pulling the Republican Party so far to the right that Tricky Dicky Nixon looks like a liberal in comparison to what passes for a Republican today. Many an east coast liberal would leave the Party for good following the complete right-wing takeover engineered by the efforts of Schlafly and her fellow ideologues. According to Tanya Melich in her book The Republican War on Women: an insider’s report from behind the lines, “It was Schlafly who translated fear of women’s liberation into a political force in the Republican Party and thereby extended the foundation of the Republican southern strategy. Now not only did the strategy flourish on the backlash of the civil rights movement, but it was broadened to include a backlash against the women’s movement, too.”

A selection of quotes from Phyllis Schlafly demonstrates just how archaic and backward thinking the woman was and her movement continues to be:

  • “When you get married you consented to sex. That’s what marriage is all about.”
  • “Military women are already complaining about increased sexual assault, and of course those problems will skyrocket. Only men will be deemed at fault because it’s a feminist ideology that men are innately batterers and women are victims.
  • “[Feminists] have given us divorce, millions of fatherless children and the idea that it’s okay to be a single mom.”
  • “Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women.”
  • “Equal pay [for women] is a communist idea. We do not want equal pay.
  • “Nothing about contraception should be taught in schools.”
  • “The atomic bomb was a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God.”
  • “Many years ago Christian pioneers had to fight savage Indians. Today missionaries of these former cultures are being sent via the public schools to heathenize our children.”
  • “In California, a majority of all Hispanic births are illegitimate. That’s a lot of Democratic voters coming.”
  • “That’s what happened to the Italians, the Irish and the Jews who came in and they became one hundred percent American. But these [Hispanic] people you can’t really show that their next generation, the younger people, are assimilating and becoming American.”
  • “You can’t be an American if you don’t speak English.”
  • “[Sodomy] is an offense of deeper malignity than rape.”

FX Hulu

Mrs. America is produced by FX and will begin streaming on Hulu April 15, with 3 new episodes premiering every Wednesday until May 27.

11 thoughts

  1. Oh boy, that woman was a piece of work. Don’t know if I’d be able to watch the FX movie–I’d probably get too infuriated. I think she played a huge role in preventing the ERA from passing.
    I did hear that Virginia passed it recently, but also that there was a legal challenge being mounted suggesting that the statute of imitations had passed and the whole process of ratification would have to start over. Hope not. . .
    Thanks for this!

    1. From what I understand the statute of limitations has passed but I’m not a legal expert so I don’t know for sure. It’s pretty ridiculous that anyone would even challenge this amendment in court. The ghost of Phyllis Schlafly lives on.

    1. Wow I had no idea! Thank you for the update. What do you think the effect of the Amendment will be if any? So many times the words of the constitution have been ignored by those in power.

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