Women’s Rights vs. Family Values

In 1973, however, the tide began to turn against the ERA. Historians have identified multiple factors to explain this shift—from well-organized Mormon opposition to the high-profile resistance from corporations such as Coors Brewing.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem blamed the insurance lobby. Removing sex-based actuarial tables might have cost insurance companies millions of dollars. Requiring health insurers to fully cover women’s reproductive healthcare could cost untold more. Steinem quipped that “insurance agent” was the most popular profession among state legislators in the 1970s.

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Gloria Steinem at a news conference for the Women’s Action Alliance in 1972 (left). A sign from the 2017 Women’s March quoting Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women (right).

In addition to the insurance industry, Eleanor Smeal, current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and past president of NOW, insisted that big business was to blame. “We’re the cheap labor pool,” explained Smeal. If an ERA were to be ratified, corporations would not only have to pay women more, they might also be subject to settlements for past wage and promotion discrimination.

All of these factors no doubt played a role in the failure of the ERA, but most people, historians and activists alike, agree that credit or blame, depending on whom you ask, belongs to Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA campaign.

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Phyllis Schlafly with fellow opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House in 1977.

Between 1973 and her death in 2016, Schlafly tirelessly toured the country, goaded feminists, and appeared on countless TV and radio programs to derail the ERA. Even though she was a lawyer and political activist, she relished beginning her speeches by saying, “I’d like to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me be here today.”

Schlafly argued that the ERA would lead to women being drafted, gay marriage, and gender-neutral bathrooms. These fear-based tactics made for catchy buttons and posters, but the crux of her message was that the ERA would prevent women from being housewives. The “STOP” in STOP ERA stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” As Schlafly explained, “Women want and need protection. Any male who is a man—or gentleman—will accept the responsibility of protecting women.”

Schlafly’s most effective strategy was to harness the various strains of ERA opposition, including conservative backlash after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, into one coherent narrative: God and nature intended for women, first and foremost, to be mothers; threats to this natural order were to be opposed.

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Women opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment in Florida’s Senate chamber in 1979 (left). Anti-Equal Rights Amendment protesters in front of the White House in 1977 (right).

Looking back, the 1972 debate over the Comprehensive Child Development Bill foreshadowed the fate of the ERA. Even though Congress passed numerous equity laws in the early 1970s, President Nixon vetoed only the child development proposal that would have provided a national network of federally funded daycare centers. In his veto explanation, President Nixon rejected the “communal approach to child-rearing” and the “family-weakening implications” of the bill. As the editors of the New York Times wrote, “It’s fine for mother, but what about the child?”

Subsequent opposition to the ERA successfully elaborated the false logic that feminism forces a choice between women’s rights and family values. As Nevada Senator Becky Harris, the only female senator to vote against the ERA in 2017 explained, “An Equal Rights Amendment (without) exclusions to protect families and protect children is something I cannot support.” Are women people? Maybe. But mothers, as a cross between superhero and maidservant, are not.

The 24-Hour Woman 

In 1977, Indiana became the last (until Nevada) state to ratify the ERA. In 1980, the Republican Party, reshaped by Schlafly and the “family values” movement, dropped support for the ERA from its platform. In 1982, the 10-year time limit for ratification of the ERA expired.

A map depicting participation in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Since then, the U.S. has also steadfastly refused to join 187 other countries in ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Others who refuse are Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Iran.

In the absence of a federal ERA, 22 states have passed their own version of an Equal Rights Amendment. And several separate federal proposals promoting the principles of the ERA have become law—including the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act of 2009, the first bill signed into law by President Obama.

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With the bill’s namesake at his side, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.

Over the past 45 years, many of the anxieties expressed by Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign have come to pass anyway. On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states. In December 2015, the Pentagon announced that women could serve on the front lines of combat (though women are not yet subject to the draft). And, despite vocal opposition in states such as North Carolina, gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming the norm in schools, work places, and public buildings.

At the same time, with middle-class wages stagnant and with marriage rates declining, Schlafly’s homemaker ideal is increasingly obscure. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau titled a recent report “The Single Life” and noted that a record 53% of women 18 and older are single, along with 47% of men.

None of these legal, political, and cultural shifts, however, have directly challenged the widespread conviction that women’s primary role is maternal or, put another way, that domestic and child-rearing tasks are best performed by women.

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A protester’s sign mocks the notion of prescribed gender roles at a demonstration in Paris, France in solidarity with the 2017 Women’s March in the U.S.

The overwhelming majority of Americans continue to profess support for women’s equality, and especially for equal pay, but we remain ambivalent about proposals that would turn the abstract principle of equality into concrete policies. Neither does support for the principle of equality signal that Americans are interested in fundamentally rethinking conventional gender roles. In other words, men agree that women are equal in theory, but men are not necessarily lining up to do more dishes and carpools.

The number of stay-at-home fathers has doubled since 1989, but only 21% (compared to 73% of stay-at-home moms) say that their primary reason for staying at home is to care for family. The majority are disabled, ill, or unable to find work. Recent studies indicate that women shoulder a larger share of the work to take care of elderly family members too.

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A 1978 advertisement for Enjoli perfume in Vogue.

Since the late 1970s, Americans have come to a tentative and tacit compromise with regard to women’s equality. Women can now enter any field (though some are notoriously more resistant to women than others) and work as hard as they are able … as long as they also still take care of the children (even if by arranging for childcare) and the home.

As the classic Enjoli perfume ad from 1978 extolled, women can “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let him forget he's a man.” The tagline for Enjoli, not incidentally, recommends it as “the 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman.” Social scientists now refer to this “24-hour woman” as the “second shift” phenomenon. After women work a full day at their jobs, they come home for a second shift of domestic labor (and, for many, another late-night shift of professional labor after getting the kids to bed). Many are back up at 5:30 am for boot camp or spin class because, like the Enjoli spokeswoman, women are also expected to remain youthful and beautiful as part of this bargain.

Even though it is now possible to see men doing laundry in detergent ads (and even to observe actual men performing actual housework in real homes), the fact remains that working women still do twice as much child care and housework as their male partners. Many commentators, including Sheryl Sandberg, Bridget Schulte, and Ann-Marie Slaughter, believe that this “second shift” accounts for the persistent glass ceiling in corporate boardrooms and in elective politics, even more so than structural barriers or gender discrimination. An even more recent study finds that “the gender pay gap is largely because of motherhood.”

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A graph depicting the wage gap between men and women from 1980 to 2009 as a ratio of female-to-male earnings.

Beyond the obvious time and stress constraints imposed by the “second shift,” the unspoken norm that women should do the grunt work of life extends from homes into workplaces. Who should prepare the office holiday party? Who should take the minutes at meetings? The same people who perform the unpaid and unacknowledged labor at home: women.

Would the ERA help eradicate these gendered norms? Maybe not, but history suggests that it is hard to attain equality in the absence of legislation.

Equality Begins at Home

With the election of President Trump, women’s rights activists are re-energized and growing in number as the January 2017 women’s march demonstrated. In fact, Nevada ERA proponents said they were motivated to revive the bill by Trump’s election.

NOW leaders hope that the Nevada vote will inspire ratification in both Illinois and Virginia, which would signal the necessary two-thirds approval, depending on how one counts and tells time. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has proposed legislation that would extend the time clock so that the new state ratifications could join the 35 existing ones, but it is not clear if this could pass Congress. Further complicating the process, since 1982, a few states have rescinded their approvals.

Equal Rights Amendment activists in Nevada ahead of that state’s 2017 ratification (left). A woman celebrating Nevada’s passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and pledging that Virginia would do so next (right). Children at a Virginia rally supporting the Equal Rights Amendment in 2017 (bottom).

Another option would be to start state ratification all over again. If Congress did vote to remove the timeframe it initially imposed on ratification, then the Supreme Court would have to decide the next steps. Women’s rights activists are hopeful that, if nothing else, the latest interest in the ERA will spark discussion and perhaps even changes in individual homes and workplaces.

For nearly 100 years, the major sticking point in debates about the ERA has been whether women should be classified as mothers or as people. The courts, Congress, and to some extent the American people have repeatedly decided that women are not people deserving of equal rights; women are mothers, deserving of special rights.

A map of the states that had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment as of 2007.

Whether or not the ERA ever becomes the 28th Amendment, there is some hope that one of its supposed consequences is already revolutionizing traditional gender roles within marriage and family life. Several recent studies have shown that same-sex marriages are much more egalitarian and, no surprise, happier than heterosexual marriages. By dismantling the idea that, naturally, the wife should perform the vast majority of childcare and housework, same-sex marriages provide a new model for marital partnerships and, perhaps, a path to equality for all.

If parenthood became prioritized over motherhood and if women, like men, were classified as people, rather than first and foremost as mothers, then many of the remaining barriers that women face would be removed, even in the absence of the ERA.

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Demonstrators on the National Mall for the Women’s March in January 2017.


Listen more: The Equal Rights Amendment: Then and Now; Violence Against Women; Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice; Same-Sex Marriage; Abortion in Europe and America; and Women in the Mideast and North Africa

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