Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist conservative leader who died Monday at the age of 92, is probably most famous for killing public support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA, which would have amended the Constitution to prohibit sex discrimination, seemed like a bipartisan inevitability — until Schlafly started a ruthlessly effective grassroots movement to convince housewives that the ERA would erase all legal differences between men and women, leading to horrors like “homosexual marriage,” unisex bathrooms, or women in combat.
Of course, many of Schlafly’s doomsday scenarios are now a reality to one degree or another — with no help from the ERA, and without collapsing society as a result. But for the women’s rights movement, that doesn’t mean Schlafly failed or that her ideas were inconsequential relics.
Schlafly wasn’t just a right-wing figurehead who made inflammatory remarks about gender roles, sexual harassment, race, and homosexuality. She also basically invented the war on women, and the impacts of that will live on long after her death.
Schlafly’s self-published book A Choice Not an Echo galvanized public support for Barry Goldwater and helped him become the GOP’s presidential nominee in 1964, Adele Stan notes at AlterNet. Goldwater may not have won the presidency, but his candidacy gave rise to the socially conservative New Right and Moral Majority movements that would later dominate Republican politics.
Schlafly’s first passion was anti-communist foreign policy, not gender issues, and she was indifferent to the ERA at first. But as Michelle Goldberg pointed out at Slate, gender politics is “an area where women have always been able to exercise their talents for leadership,” and Schlafly saw an opportunity there.
Stan cites Tanya Melich’s 1996 book The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report From Behind the Lines, which argues that Schlafly “made the Religious Right a political player” once she “unearthed the political gold of misogyny.”
“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,” Melich wrote. “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.”
Schlafly didn’t invent anti-feminism any more than Donald Trump (whom Schlafly vocally supported up until her death) invented anti-immigrant sentiment. But much like Trump, Schlafly had a gift for tapping into frustrations that were already brewing, and for channeling them into a movement powerful enough to take on a life of its own.
Before Schlafly and her group Stop ERA came along, Stan notes, the Republican Party was relatively liberal on women’s issues. The party platform supported the ERA, and Republican first lady Betty Ford supported reproductive rights.
But the cultural war over the ERA and feminism helped convince Richard Nixon to veto a bipartisan universal child care bill in 1972. Pro-choice Republican women reluctantly allowed a new anti-abortion plank in the party’s 1976 platform, hoping to salvage support for the ERA in exchange — but by 1980, the last pro-ERA plank was removed from the GOP platform. And in 1996 Schlafly, who co-chaired Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, wrote the GOP’s “no exceptions” anti-abortion platform and fought off Bob Dole’s efforts to liberalize it.
The GOP’s abortion opposition in particular has wreaked havoc on reproductive health care access in America. Even with a recent pro-choice victory at the Supreme Court, it will take years of court fights and political organizing to reverse even some of the damage done by a slew of state laws passed in just the last five years that have restricted abortion and cut family planning funding.
Stopping the ERA alone was a significant setback for feminism. Women's rights advocates still argue that we need the ERA because our current patchwork of laws and court precedents against gender discrimination — Title IX, 14th Amendment interpretations, and so on — are much weaker and more vulnerable to reversal than a constitutional amendment would be.
If the ERA had passed, feminists might not have had to fight so hard against pregnancy discrimination, or for stronger equal pay bills, or against laws that target women’s health providers. There have been new efforts to revive the ERA recently, but they haven’t gotten much traction in a Republican Congress.
Without Schlafly’s influence, it’s hard to imagine the Republican Party being nearly as resistant to evolving ideas about gender roles, or as militantly opposed to abortion, as it is today. And whether or not the GOP continues that trend in the future, feminists and progressives have an uphill battle ahead of them to undo Schlafly’s legacy.