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Posted Wednesday November 2, 2005 7:00 AM EST

Karl Rove’s Godmother

Phyllis Schlafly promotes the cause at a banquet in 1979.
(Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism/Eagle Forum Archives)

When the Equal Rights Amendment was approved by Congress, in March 1972, it seemed unstoppable. After all, the amendment (which provided that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”) had been endorsed in both parties’ platforms since the 1940s. It passed the House by 354-23 and the Senate by 84-8, with only a few crusty old conservatives, like Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, in opposition. Hawaii’s legislature ratified the amendment 32 minutes after the Senate vote was announced. New Hampshire and Nebraska followed the next day, and by the time a year had passed, 30 of the requisite 38 states had approved it. It seemed a mere matter of months before the ERA would be part of the Constitution. Then, suddenly, the process stopped nearly dead, never to recover. By far the most influential person in making that happen was a Missouri woman named Phyllis Schlafly.

When conservatives discuss the history of their movement—as they do quite often—they tend to focus on intellectuals, such as Friedrich Hayek and George Gilder; journalists, such as William F. Buckley and Robert Bartlett; and politicians, such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Activists get little mention, partly because marches and demonstrations still seem like more of a liberal thing, and partly because so many conservative activists through the years have been nuts.

Schlafly was strongly right-wing, but she wasn’t a nut. As Donald T. Critchlow explains in impressive detail in the recently published Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton University Press, 422 pages, $29.95), two decades of experience in Republican politics, including a pair of unsuccessful congressional campaigns, taught her how to craft arguments that would stir a wide audience, how to focus on hot-button issues and talking points, how to choose appealing representatives to make a case, and the importance of organizing at a local level and working tirelessly to fire up the troops.

Anti-ERA campaigners depicted a future of unisex restrooms, female military conscription, and fathers abandoning their families with impunity if the amendment was ratified. They portrayed the ERA as an assault on traditional Christian values that would entrench abortion and homosexual rights. Opponents handed out flyers, wrote letters to newspapers and legislators, addressed religious and social organizations, and debated supporters of the amendment. Those who testified at hearings were carefully selected to maximize diversity—”youth, blacks, a lawyer, a housewife, a working gal, elderly, etc.,” as one organizer summarized her chosen speakers. By 1975 it was clear that the amendment was in trouble. The total number of approving states stalled at 35, and even an extension of the term for its ratification was not enough to save it.

A generation later the ERA’s failure has turned out to be largely irrelevant. Everything it was meant to accomplish has been incorporated into law anyway, without the blank check of a broadly worded constitutional amendment. Newspapers’ marriage columns include same-sex couples; we will probably soon have a woman President; abortion has been declared a constitutional right; colleges tally male and female athletes to make sure the numbers match federal guidelines; and when a President’s affair with an intern was revealed, most Americans were furious at the invasion of his privacy. The ERA was not necessary for achieving today’s state of equality, which goes far beyond what most of its proponents could have dreamed of in 1972. That’s one reason why the word “feminist” now describes an academic profession rather than a political viewpoint.

Yet the attempt to write the ERA into law stirred up conservative voters like no other issue before or since. By taking activism away from the extremist fringe and bringing it to women’s clubs and church groups, the anti-ERA campaign set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s nearly successful challenge of Gerald Ford in 1976, his triumphant election in 1980, and Karl Rove’s grassroots turn-out-the-vote campaign that beat the Democrats at their own game and reelected George W. Bush in 2004.

William F. Buckley has famously described the mission of conservatism as “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’“ In most cases, for most conservatives, this has actually amounted to standing off to the side muttering, “Tsk, tsk!” But Schlafly and her followers did exactly what Buckley described: By protesting loudly, they killed a constitutional amendment that had seemed a historical inevitability when it was passed. In the process, they helped shift America politically to the right, even as it has continued its inexorable move socially to the left.

—Frederic D. Schwarz is a senior editor of American Heritage magazine.

 
 
 
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