On My Mother, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Long Path of the Equal Rights Amendment


Recently, I called my mother to ask her the kind of question only a daughter can ask her mother, “Did you hate Phyllis Schlafly?”

“I didn’t know her to hate her. She was just against feminism,” she responded. “People used to think of her as the opposite of me,” my mother told me. “They used to put me on television up against her. I might have argued with her, I can’t remember. She was the anti-feminist, and I was pro feminism. She thought feminist wasn’t good for women.”

I read once that Schlafly had read my mother’s books as a way of trying to understand feminists. I have no idea if that’s true, but it makes a certain kind of sense. They were both women making their mark in the ‘70s: My mother, the author of novels that inspired women to have “zipless sex”; and Schlafly a vitriolic culture warrior dedicated to “preserving” women’s preeminent position—in the home—through political machinations, and spats with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and other women like my mother.

This episode from second-wave feminist history came to mind recently, as I mulled over a basic but incomprehensible fact: Women still don’t have the same rights as men under the United States Constitution. I know that seems unbelievable, but they don’t. In 1972, the United States Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrined the relatively uncontroversial idea that women should have the same rights as men. But because America is hopelessly backwards, conservatives decided this notion was too radical and moved to derail the amendment’s ratification. Thirty-eight states needed to sign on in order for the amendment to become official; only 35 approved it in the end.

By 1982, the amendment had stalled, and the deadline for its ratification had expired. Then in 2017, Nevada signed on, Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in 2020—the magic number (38, or three-quarters of the states) had been reached. This would mean, in theory, that the United States Constitution would finally say that WOMEN SHOULD HAVE THE SAME RIGHTS AS MEN. There were some complications ahead, namely the fact that the deadline had passed and some states, like North Dakota, have “rescinded” their approval. But still, it felt like progress.

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