Review: Mrs. America, Phyllis Schlafly and the ERA 4

In 1977, the United States was poised to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing legal rights to all Americans regardless of sex. It had been passed by the House and Senate, had bipartisan support (including Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter) and had been ratified by 35 of the 38 states required to solidify it’s place in our legal framework.

And then came Phyllis Schlafly.

Like a wrecking ball, Schlafly mobilized opposition to the ERA, Feminism, and ultimately moderate Republicanism itself. The coalition she put together during the mid-to-late ’70s was the very foundation of the Religious Right in America, and largely responsible for the Reagan Revolution.

The Hulu Treatment

Right now, the drama of the 1970’s is being played out every Wednesday on the Hulu series Mrs. AmericaWith Cate Blanchett starring as the scheming-with-a-smile Schlafly (and a star-studded list of actresses playing her Feminist opponents), there was no doubt this would be good TV. And it is.

But Mrs. America goes deeper than that – especially for me. And especially today, as I’ve just finished episode 6 (titled “Jill”) – which left me feeling a bit punched in the gut. (Wait, what? There were Feminist Republicans?? Nixon supported the ERA?? Sexual favors were a job requirement for Congressional secretaries?? Republicans were Pro-Choice?? What alternate reality is this??)

Till now it had been a bit surreal seeing Blanchett’s Shlafly come up with all the anti-feminist talking points I used to parrot during my time as a Conservative Republican. Especially as I saw the passion and frustration portrayed by her opponents – women like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug. Now that I’m on their side of the fence I can see why Schlafly’s arguments and movement took them by such surprise.

And also why, despite the deception inherent in those arguments, those ideas won out.

The Privilege And The Pedestal

Schlafly based her opposition on the idea that making men and women equal under the law would, in fact, harm women. It would take away “privileges” she said women enjoyed –  including “dependent wife” benefits under Social Security, separate restrooms for males and females, and exemption from Selective Service (the military draft). She goes so far as to name her group STOP ERA (“Stop Taking Our Privileges”).

Starting to sound familiar?

When I first joined the UPC, the biggest red flags I ignored had to do with gender roles and “submission” of women to their husbands. It didn’t mean, they told me, that I was a second-class citizen. It meant I was privileged. On a pedestal. To be cherished and protected by my man.

I tried, I really did. But I was always trying to reconcile this in my brain. I convinced myself that marriage was still a partnership, but instead of 50-50 maybe it was 51-49. But there were times decisions were made on my behalf that I vehemently disagreed with. And that is not a good feeling. (Fortunately the Hubs and I have both evolved into a much more respectful, equal partnership.)

But it kinda sounds good, doesn’t it? Especially to women who’ve been conditioned their whole lives to believe their worth is based upon being desired by a man. Cherished. Protected. Cared for. Who wouldn’t want that? At least, until you wake up and realize that your pedestal is really a gilded cage. IF you do ever wake up.

The Coalition That Ended The ERA Haunts Us To This Day

Episode 6 has Schlafly gaining ground in her opposition to the ERA. She’s becoming a national player, but she’s not quite powerful enough to get the Republican Party to remove it’s plank supporting the amendment in the 1976 Convention. Betty Ford is a vocal proponent of the amendment, and Schlafly goes so far as to picket the White House in protest of the First Lady of her own party.

But not enough women come to her protest, and time is running out. How, Schlafly wonders, can we swell our ranks? We have to find women who aren’t active in politics already and get them in this. And so the fateful decision is made to reach out to religious leaders of all denominations. The new interfaith group will be called the Eagle Forum.

The toughest group to get on board are conservative Catholic women (a group with over 15,000 on their all-important mailing list). The sticking point: their leader only cares about two things: abortion and homosexuality. Needless to say she’s opposed to both, and will only allow her group to merge with Eagle Forum if she is made Vice President, and these issues brought into focus.

And So It Begins

And so the Culture War we’ve been fighting ever since begins on the floor of the 1976 Republican convention. The episode ends with Schlafly in a closed-door meeting of delegates, where she’s told the pro-ERA plank will not be removed. But, there’s this guy named Jerry Falwell that you really need to meet. He’s interested in getting involved but doesn’t know what to do. “Well, I’m sure I can tell him a thing or two,” Schlafly purrs, smiling demurely while fire ignites in her eyes.

Four years later, the Eagle Forum, Jerry Falwell and his “silent majority” were essential components of the “Reagan Revolution.” We’re still fighting over abortion and gay rights to this day. 40 years of “trickle down” economics have left us with the largest wealth inequality since the Gilded Age, possibly even more.

And it all began with a woman from St. Louis who claimed she wanted the “freedom and right” to be a wife and mother for all women. A woman who was anything but a stay-at-home mom.

If you really want to understand the foundations of how we got here, Mrs. America is a must-watch. Currently streaming on Hulu, or available for purchase on Amazon Prime. New episodes are added every Wednesday.



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4 thoughts on “Review: Mrs. America, Phyllis Schlafly and the ERA

  • Michael Carden

    It cannot really be correct to say the culture war begins in 1976. The culture war began when leftists decided to attack traditional values. It seems sometimes that leftists are surprised when they face opposition to their social innovations, when it is absolutely inevitable that leftist social innovations will face push-back.

    The term reactionary, which is sometimes used to describe conservatives of various stripes is revealing of the point above. Conservatives or rightists (not really the same thing) are called reactionaries precisely because the left makes the first move, then the right or conservatives react.

    • admin Post author

      You’re absolutely correct that THE culture war cannot have begun in 1976. The players as we know them today had their beginnings at that time, but Progress vs Traditionalism is probably as old as time itself.

      When would you like to delineate the beginning? When slaves were freed and no longer subject to white men’s whips? That was an innovation, and the push-back was lynchings and Jim Crowe laws. Or was it when those uppity women got the right to vote? When Rosie the Riveter wasn’t content to go back to being “the little woman” taking care of her man and some wanted to remain in the workplace? That push-back was a lot of demeaning, harassment and the infamous glass ceiling.

      I was a housewife – even homeschooled – when my kids were small. Phyllis Schlafly would’ve been so proud. But women’s lib never threatened that possibility, or my freedom to choose to do so. All it did was seek rights for women to explore other dreams. Why is that so scary? Why does it deserve push-back?

      We are often surprised on this side by the resistance to what we see as giving basic rights to anyone who isn’t a white man. Two men getting married doesn’t hurt you. Being “out” on the job and not getting fired doesn’t hurt you. Rights aren’t pie. There’s enough for everyone.

      The 1950s, which Conservatives (or rightists or whatever it is you want to call yourselves) were 70 years ago. No society exists in a bubble. Things change. And I would much rather be on the side of that change bringing MORE freedom and equality than less of it.

      Nobody is stopping you, Mr. Carden, from finding people who agree with you and living the life you’re so nostalgic for. The only thing you cannot do is force that life on the rest of us.

      “Live free or die” right? Let the people in the culture live free. If you can’t stand witnessing that freedom there are a lot of rural areas you can set up your own little mini state. As long as you don’t abuse anyone, the rest of us will pretty much ignore you.

      But we will not go back to the time when you could oppress us willy-nilly without one hell of a fight. We’re not all unarmed pacifist hippies. “Boogaloo” ain’t gonna be as one sided as y’all think.

      So how bout we just play nice and let people be people?

      • Mike

        I think you read a lot into my post that wasn’t there, I am hardly a Western or white hegemonist, and in fact there is nothing more white and Western (and modern) than progressive ideology, which has its roots in modern Western Europe and nowhere else. Certainly the ancient European pagans had nothing like an ideology of progress, nor did the medieval Catholics. The conflict between progress and tradition is not old, as you seem to think, but is relatively new to human history, (and again, Western in origin) having its root in the Renaissance. We Westerners tend to act like the last few centuries of our history represent a norm for all societies (talk about being blind and basically outright ignoring the histories and beliefs of other civilizations!) when nothing could be farther from the truth. Societies have traditionally avoided innovation, changing only slowly and organically.

        I have no desire to “oppress” anyone, and being a conservative is not about believing the past was perfect, there is no utopia. You are attacking a strawman of what you believe a conservative to be. I just take what the prophet Muhammed said in a hadith that “every period will be worse than the one before it” as a truism (this hadith of Muhammed in fact represents a view held by all traditional peoples from the Greeks to the Aztecs). If people today cannot see the ways in which our society is massively degenerate and in fact oppressive of all real values it is because we are using the wrong measuring stick. We think the goals of human societies are equality, democracy and material progress, but what if the goals of societies should be other than that? What if we are using the wrong measuring stick?

        Good day, ma’am.

        • admin Post author

          Well apologies then. Don’t find many non-white or non-western hegemonist types defending Phyllis Schlafly.

          Truly we are using different measuring sticks. “We think the goals of human societies are equality (Yes! Should be!) Democracy (real democracy, again yes! One human one vote) and material progress (nope. Ya lost me here. We cannot perpetually grow without hurting either the planet or other people).

          In America (where the series in question is based) “culture war” has meant the struggle for Judeo-christian values above all others. That is what this article, the show it’s reviewing, Hell this very blog is about.

          I asked how far you wanted to take this conflict back in order to discuss it, and you attempted to nullify the struggle for equality by taking it so far back as to be irrelevant.

          Fuck you.

          I don’t care who you worship or what your politics are. I don’t care about anything but equally. Draw the starting line anywhere you want.

          But show me a society in which every “race” (really culture cuz ain’t like any biology separates by more than 1%), where all workers share in their production, where all have equal rights… I don’t care if that has historical precedents or where it came from.

          It’s right, its moral, and it’s what my belief system calls for. If the Fallwell brigade can work to take us back to 1950 I can work for this.

          Peace, yo