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were some complications ahead, namely the fact that the deadline had passed and some states, like North Dakota, have “rescinded” their approval.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.
Then at the start of this year, Democrats won the Senate—all hail Stacey Abrams!—and realized that they could finally make the ERA official. Last Wednesday, they passed a joint resolution by a 222-204 vote that would remove the 1982 deadline. Four Republicans in the House joined all the Democrats in passing the resolution.Stop ERA national Chairman Phyllis Schafly leads members opposed to the equal rights amendment. Photo: Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Finally, we can move beyond the second-wave divisions, I thought. That was until I read Mercedes Sclapp and Mary Vought in USA Today and got enraged all over again. It was that same dumb argument that Schlafly had been shopping in the ‘70s and ‘80s: that the equal rights amendment would make women less protected under state laws and that the ERA violates the Constitution. First of all, I would think this goes without saying but it's factually impossible for a constitutional amendment to be "unconstitutional,” since its purpose is to change the Constitution.
And second all, what are they even talking about? The authors argue that the ERA would render other protections, like title IX or alimony laws, ineffective by superseding them. (A bit confusing how additional protection makes women less protected, but there you go …) They also argue that the 14th Amendment offers enough protection. (Tell that to the MeToo movement, or any number of social movements that still see room for progress …) The argument, essentially, is “we don’t need it” and “it's too late for it” and it's somehow “bad for women”—and this is just beyond silly, a bad-faith argument made in bad faith, as many conservative arguments are.
The ERA states an idea that should NOT be controversial: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The fact that we’re still arguing about this is sort of horrifying. But the ERA could theoretically pass. Of course that doesn’t mean it will. But my god, we have a woman vice president—we should at the very least be protected under the Constitution.
I called my mom one more time as I was finishing the piece. She’s almost 80. She seemed unfocused, asking me about the kids etc., then I paused. “Can you believe the ERA still hasn’t passed?” She’d lived so many lifetimes since 1972.
“I think it’s unbelievable it's taken this long. I thought we would have passed the Equal Rights Amendment ages ago. All the arguments against it don’t really hold water.”
I was born 6 years after the ERA started its journey. I’m now 42 and still nothing.