The Woman who Opposed Equality with Men: Phyllis Schlafly and the Real History Behind "Mrs. America"Roundup
tags: conservatism, feminism, womens history, Equal Rights Amendment, television, Phyllis Schlafly, antifeminism
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.
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 debuting on FX on Hulu on 15 April (and coming to BBC Two this summer), explores the heated debates surrounding the 1970s efforts to ratify the ERA through the eyes of Schlafly and the feminists she fought against.
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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