Phyllis Schlafly was against a lot of rights for a lot of people right up until her death Monday at age 92. Her main fame, though, came from her successful leadership of the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Hearing her name and mention of the ERA conjured up images of bras and flags burning, Archie Bunker screaming and a hot debate about rights in this nation. But here is what the legislation actually said: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Seems noncontroversial enough, and so it’s not surprising that the amendment passed with 90 percent approval in both houses of Congress and was ratified in 35 states. But Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum to fight the law in 1975 and it never got the 38 states it needed to pass. It had been proposed in every Congress since 1923. It has been proposed repeatedly since. It is entirely in line with our current mores, yet it has never become the law of the land.
Now, more than 40 years after Schlafly came to fame, it feels like her failure to understand the need for equal rights was more about class and race and privilege than gender.
In 1972 Schlafly formed Stop ERA, with Stop standing for “stop taking our privileges.” The acronym was a fair summation of Schlafly’s view and of one powerful argument against equal rights for women. Because they give birth to and care for children, they deserve more, not equal rights. They have traditionally gotten them because society forced men to provide for women and children and protect them from enemies foreign and domestic.
To Schlafly, ably supported by her attorney husband, and many of the white middle-class women who joined her movement, the ERA promised a loss of cherished protections, not a granting of rights.
Schlafly had three degrees and a successful media career, but called it all a “hobby.” She had six children, but her husband’s income provided for them amply. She didn’t need the protection of the ERA, so she fought it, and all the women who did need it.
Those women who need equal rights most, who need to make as much as men for the same work and need the legal guarantee of the same opportunities as men, are mostly poor, often brown or black, and without partners they can lean on for support. Or they are with partners they can lean on for support, but whose skills do not bring in enough to create prosperity.
The most frustrating aspect of any argument about equal rights is that the people who want to impede the liberties of others believe their wishes are just as (or more) important as the needs and desires of those they want to impede. Schlafly, politically active until her death, was also a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and other gay rights, even though her son is gay.
And she often argued that people who tried to stop her intolerance were somehow intolerant because of it.
Straight people can believe gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Women who don’t need equal opportunities under the law can oppose the rights of those who do. But the opinions of the anti-rights folks have no credence or validity compared to the views of those trying to secure their rights.
Schlafly seems like a relic. Many of the rights women and gay people sought and which she opposed have been granted. But there still seems to be this same fundamental misunderstanding of privilege and liberty for many people.
The fact that you don’t personally need a right, the exercise of which would not directly impede your freedom, doesn’t mean it isn’t needed. It just means it’s none of your business.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.