The Opposition to ERA

Opponents of the ERA focused on traditional gender roles, such as how men do the fighting in wartime. They argued that the amendment would eliminate the men-only draft requirement and guarantee the possibility that women would be subject to conscription and be required to have military combat roles in future wars if it were passed. Defense of traditional gender roles proved to be a useful tactic. In Illinois, supporters of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Republican activist from that state, used traditional symbols of the American housewife. They took homemade bread, jams, and apple pies to the state legislators, with the slogans, “Preserve us from a congressional jam; Vote against the ERA sham” and “I am for Mom and apple pie.” They appealed to married women by stressing that the amendment would invalidate protective laws such as alimony and eliminate the tendency for mothers to obtain custody over their children in divorce cases. It was suggested that single-sex bathrooms would be eliminated and same-sex couples would be able to get married if the amendment were passed. Traditional women started to oppose the ERA. Schlafly said the ERA was designed for the benefit of young career women and warned that if men and women had to be treated identically it would threaten the security of middle-aged housewives with no job skills. They could no longer count on alimony or Social Security. Opponents also argued that men and women were already equal enough with the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that women’s colleges would have to admit men. Schlafly’s argument that protective laws would be lost resonated with working-class women.

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At the 1980 Republican National Convention, the Republican Party platform was amended to end its support for the ERA. The most prominent opponent of the ERA was Schlafly. Leading the Stop ERA campaign, Schlafly defended traditional gender roles and would often attempt to incite feminists by opening her speeches with lines such as, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight – I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad.” When Schlafly began her campaign in 1972, public polls showed support for the amendment was widely popular and thirty states had ratified the amendment by 1973. After 1973, the number of ratifying states slowed to a trickle. Support in the states that had not ratified fell below 50%.Critchlow and Stachecki argue that public opinion in key states shifted against the ERA as opponents, operating on the local and state levels, won over the public. The state legislators in battleground states followed public opinion in rejecting the ERA.

Experts agree that Phyllis Schlafly was a key player in the defeat. Political scientist Jane Mansbridge in her history of the ERA argues that the draft issue was the single most powerful argument used by Schlafly and the other opponents to defeat ERA. Mansbridge concluded, “Many people who followed the struggle over the ERA believed – rightly in my view – that the Amendment would have been ratified by 1975 or 1976 had it not been for Phyllis Schlafly’s early and effective effort to organize potential opponents.”Legal scholar Joan C. Williams argues, “ERA was defeated when Schlafly turned it into a war among women over gender roles.” Historian Judith Glazer-Raymo argues:

As moderates, we thought we represented the forces of reason and goodwill but failed to take seriously the power of the family values argument and the single-mindedness of Schlafly and her followers. The ERA’s defeat seriously damaged the women’s movement, destroying its momentum and its potential to foment social change….Eventually, this resulted in feminist dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, giving the Democrats a new source of strength that when combined with overwhelming minority support, helped elect Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 and again in 1996.

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