If Alice Paul had gotten her way, the United States Constitution would read:
Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This, her proposed text of the Equal Rights Amendment, has never come to pass. Drafted by Paul and introduced by two Republicans in 1923—one of whom was Susan B. Anthony's nephew—the ERA was introduced by the GOP in every congressional session thereafter, until 1980. Nearly 60 years of finding a sponsor, and for all but three of those years, ERA died in committee. In those other three years, it either failed on a close vote in the Senate, or it passed, but with a rider that none of its supporters could stomach.
Much of the Democrats' resistance to the amendment was due to their belief that it would effectively take away gains made for labor unions, giving anti-unionists justification to abolish labor laws accorded to men or women instead of extending them out to both sexes. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that women deserved specific protections from the government as part of the New Deal—she'd worked to limit the number of hours women could be required to work—and she decided not to support the ERA rather than see these protections removed.
Decades after these conversations regarding equal rights began, the ERA finally got some traction. In 1970 Congress agreed to hear testimony regarding the need for an equal rights amendment, and here is where Gloria Steinem, then a journalist and a member of the Democratic National Committee, made an impassioned plea to the Senate. This is interesting to me for many reasons, not the least of which is I kind of can't see anyone caring about anything a journalist would say to the Senate regarding the justification for a new constitutional amendment. What's that you say, Geraldo? We'll get right on that, Ms. Stahl.
The bill passed both houses of Congress and received an official endorsement from President Nixon; now it needed ratification by two-thirds of the states within seven years. Here is where a certain woman named Phyllis Schlafly entered the picture. Schlafly had been a vociferous conservative for years, authoring, by that point, nearly half a dozen books about Presidential selection and arms control. When states began ratifying the ERA, Schlafly spoke up and warned against its passage, saying it would lead to drafting women into the military and end dependent benefits from Social Security. Although five states ratified the ERA after she launched her campaign against it, five more rescinded their ratification, and with only 30 of 38 states in support, the amendment failed. While the amendment would not have say, insisted on parity in men and women's salary compensation, it could have had an effect not conceptualized in 1972: it could have invalidated restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortions.
Case in point: New Mexico. In 1998, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled 5-0 that the state ERA, which is very similar to the proposed federal ERA, prohibited the state from restricting abortion differently from any other "medically necessary procedures" sought by men. The court ordered the state to pay for abortions under the state's Medicaid program. Fifteen other states have state-level equal rights amendments similar to the New Mexico and proposed federal amendments.
So where in the world is Phyllis Schlafly these days?
Well, in 2007, support for an ERA began to swell up again, and this time Schlafly popped up to argue that it would lead to same-sex marriage and, again, deny dependent benefits for housewives and widows. At this point, I think someone should let Ms. Schlafly know that women often now get Social Security benefits off of their own work records, and not that of their husbands, and there are a hell of a lot fewer "housewives" out there.
Schlafly is one of the first among the far-right to speak of "moral conservatives," driving social issues to the top of the GOP's priority list. She is also the person who coined the term "activist judges" that we've heard so much about and that seem to be shorthand for "judges who write moderate to progressive briefs in their judgments." Through her own publishing house, Pere Marquette Press, she continues to put extreme conservative opinions out in the market place, and with Texas's recent changes to its social studies curriculum by its Republican Board of Education, Schlafly now will get a lot more air time in their schools. And I'll note here that Texas sets the unofficial standard for most of the country's primary and secondary schools, insofar as Texas is one of the largest textbook purchasers; publishers look to see what Texas wants in the way of lesson plans and content, and those preferences trickle down to books sold for schools in other states.
Schlafly still makes news, even at age 85. As an octogenarian, she received an honorary degree from her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. Many of the graduates stood up during her acceptance speech and turned their backs to her in protest. Dude, I just wouldn't go. I try not to spend quality time around people who say that getting married is automatic consent, making marital rape impossible.
Founder of the Eagle Forum, her vehicle for her newsletter and a funding machine for right-wing political candidates who are even more reactionary than Mike Huckabee, apparently. The Eagle Forum's positions are against vaccinating infants, but are pro-life, should babies make it through a Hepatitis B infection, for example, for women to be homemakers—continuing her justification for resisting the ERA (so clever of her!), and against same sex marriage. So I guess it's no marriage for her eldest son, who is out, proud, and conservative. Isn't there a Law & Order episode about a family like this?
Her viewpoints will continue on, not just in Texas, but via her other son Andrew's Web site, Conservapedia. (I swear I am not making this up.) But don't take my word for it, listen to him explain the "portal" on The Colbert Report.
So, Phyllis Schlafly is alive and well, and working on the next generation of haters—I mean, social conservatives. I wonder if she's receiving those Communist Social Security checks.