‘Mrs. America’ Framed by Two Anniversaries
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
This summer will mark two anniversaries in the women’s rights movement. August 18 will mark 100 years since the 19th Amendment, granting women suffrage, was finally ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures and became part of the supreme law of the land. August 10 will mark the day on which 50 years earlier the Equal Rights Amendment, after languishing in committee for 15 years, passed in the House of Representatives.
These anniversaries frame “Mrs. America,” the Disney FX network’s dramatization of Phyllis Schlafly’s successful battle to deny Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm and their feminist cohort the constitutional amendment they sought. The nine-part series, which finished this week, aims to capture the drama of the conflict — particularly Schlafly’s emergence as the leader who grasped the threat many women perceived in the ERA and also the power of American federalism.
Not that the feminist movement was without its numbers. Despite George McGovern’s 1972 defeat, the progressive currents of the early 1970s swept in changes. In 1971, the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, had taken only 100 days to reach 38 state approval. When the ERA came around, it was initially endorsed by an unlikely trio of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Richard Nixon. It passed the House by a vote of 354 to 24, and in March of 1972 the Senate by a tally of 84 to 8. Within a year, 30 states raced to ratify the amendment.
In January 1973, as those ratifications piled up, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v Wade. The majority was not a close 5-4 but a decisive 7-2. Three of four Nixon appointees, including Chief Warren Burger and majority opinion author Harry Blackmum, declared that abortion was a constitutional right. The reaction to this “exercise in raw judicial power,” as Justice Byron White put it in his dissent in a related case, energized opposition to the ERA.
Phyllis Schlafly was not only a superior strategist. She also better appreciated the unsung conservative ideals. One constitutional scholar who studied the fight, David Kyvig, has pointed out that the “traditional beliefs that women were best suited to domestic responsibilities had not died, nor had progressive thinking that women required protection when they ventured beyond the home,” particularly in the American south. ERA advocates “gave little consideration to the long history of debate over what legal arrangements would best serve American women.”
History again offered some guideposts. Following the passage of the 19th amendment, the women’s movement fragmented. Suffrage activist Alice Paul and her National Women’s Party proposed the first ERA in 1923. Foreshadowing the shortcomings of 1970’s feminists, Paul’s organization focused exclusively on affluent white women, became a Washington lobby and failed to establish a grassroots organization to back the cause.
The majority of former suffragettes fell into what was termed the protectionist camp. They reckoned that the right to vote was integral to advocating for more and better government protection of women and their children, not to untether them from their vulnerable status in the eyes of the state.
The Women’s Trade Union League opposed the ERA on the grounds it would impact labor legislation already in place that offered special protections to women. The League of Women Voters advocated for women as informed citizens, focusing on issues like child labor, public education, and access to housing.
No less a figure than Eleanor Roosevelt, a tireless advocate for women during the Depression and the War, embodied these conflicting priorities. No fan of Alice Paul, the First Lady was an opponent of the ERA, believing it would eliminate the legislative gains women had achieved in preceding decades. “Women are different from men,” explained Roosevelt in her 1933 manifesto “It’s Up to the Women.” “They are equal in many ways but they cannot refuse to acknowledge their differences.”
In a forgotten twist, it was the Republican Party that, beginning in 1940, began including endorsement of the ERA in its platforms. Rank and file pro-labor Democrats echoed Eleanor Roosevelt in fearing an ERA would rescind measures protecting women from dangerous jobs (and potentially take those jobs from men).
When Phyllis Schlafly said that “Women want and need protection (and) any male who is a man — or gentleman — will accept the responsibility of protecting women” she was reviving a half century refrain of ERA opponents. The STOP in STOP ERA meant “stop taking our privileges.” And in 1973 when she says in her “Mrs. America” debate with Betty Friedan “I don’t believe we should look to the government and the Constitution to solve our personal problems” she is foreshadowing the revolt against government overreach that would loft Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
So in the long run, did Schlafly win her war on feminism and progressive values? Schlafly opposed the ERA because it could mean the legalization of gay marriage, women in combat, gender neutral bathrooms, public funding of birth control and abortion, and diminished support for the nuclear family. Today’s America suggests she won the battle but lost the war. Was she right, though, on the merits?
“Mrs. America” doesn’t put paid to that poser. It does, though end by listing the states — Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018, and the Old Dominion just this year — that have ratified the ERA. That would bring to the required 38 the number of states that have ratified the ERA, though the legislatures of several states — Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky, and South Dakota — have since rescinded their ratification votes. The House, just this year, voted to extend the ratification deadline. “Mrs. America” ends by noting that the Senate has failed to act. Message: Wait until November.
Mr. Atkinson, a contributing editor of the Sun, covers the 20th century.