About this Episode
During the 1970s, a counter-movement arose that challenged the feminists push for the Equal Rights Amendment. Today, we turn to Phyllis Schlafly and her fellow conservative women who saw what feminists' considered sexist discrimination as privileges that they had earned and refused to relinquish.
Cite this Site
Episode 6: Mom and Apple Pie Citations:
Theme Music: Hot Shot by Scott Holmes
Dan T. Carter "The Rise of Conservatism since World War II." OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 2 (2003).
Donald T. Critchlow "The ERA Battle Revives the Right." In Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
David Farber "Phyllis Schlafly: Domestic Conservatism and Social Order." In The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History (Princton: Princeton University Press, 2010.)
Elizabeth Kolbert, "Firebrand," The New Yorker, Oct. 31, 2005. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/11/07/firebrand.
Stacie Taranto "'Defending ʺWomen Who Stand by the Sink': Suburban Homemakers and Anti-ERA Activism in New York State." in Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, edited by Archer John, Sandul Paul J. P., and Solomonson Katherine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Lila Thulin "THE 97-YEAR-HISTORY OF THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT" Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/equal-rights-amendment-96-years-old-and-still-not-part-constitution-heres-why-180973548/.
Episode 6: Mom and Apple Pie:
Last time, we discussed the emergence of the 1970s feminist movement as it grew from the civil rights movement. We looked at the conflicts over strategy and platform goals. And the internal debates that led to Title VII is inclusion of sex, Roe v. Wade, and the Equal Rights Amendment being well on its way to becoming the newest tenant of the US Constitution.
But it was during the early 1970s that a counter movement developed, consisting of women who directly opposed the redefining of women's roles in society that the feminist movement, radical liberationists, and Black feminists were advocating. This opposition movement played a crucial part in shaping not only women's role in public society, but the modern conservative woman.
Today, we turn to anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly and the lasting impact of the conservative women's movement.
For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, I’m Sarah Paxton, and this is Prologued.
In the previous episode, we started by talking about how, in the wake of the Second World War, in which marginalized people of color and women had played an extensive and vital role, the nation attempted to return to normalcy. Women were expected to return to roles as wives and mothers, working only the limited and low paying positions that were deemed suitable for women.
Remember that it was Betty Friedan's lack of fulfillment in domesticity, as a housewife after being fired during her second pregnancy, which inspired her to write The Feminine Mystique, which gave a voice to the emerging feminist movement of the 1960s.
But not all women shared Friedan’s frustration. Instead, for many of these women living the quintessential image of American domesticity that had spurred Betty Friedan’s feminist awakening was a luxury that they had long thought on attainable.
After the war, the classic image of the suburban American family developed. The suburbs grew in the 1940s and 50s, due in part to the post war baby boom, which made more space for increasing family sizes desirable, and veteran benefits like low GI mortgages, that made purchasing large homes outside the city possible. The post war economy rebounded from the 1930s Great Depression and big families could live on dad's single income in the new suburbs, most women didn't have to work. Rather these women were able to stay at home as a wife and mother, living as a “housewife.”
In the 1940s and 50s, suburban conservatives saw the expanding welfare state as pushing America closer and closer to the socialism and communism that they watched develop in the Soviet Union. This was the era of McCarthyism, after all, in the early days of the Cold War.
But some women were also concerned that the expansion of welfare policies would destroy their new way of life in the suburbs. For a substantial number of families, life in the suburbs was far and above what they had experienced growing up working class during the Great Depression. Conservatives saw the expensive programs of the New Deal and the higher taxes that funded them as a threat on their ability to afford their new post more lives.
In the 1960s, the feminist movement also became a threat to the status quo. By the 1950s and 60s owning and tending to a single family home as a housewife was how many women in America defined success. However, as Dr. Susan Hartman tells us, by the end of the 1960s, the feminist movement was growing increasingly radical and threatening the privileges housewives enjoyed.
A counter movement arose, that attacked, not everything, but most of the key goals of the feminists. Conservative women mobilized around the idea that being a wife and being a mother, or God given roles, or at least natural roles, that they did not want to give up their right to be supported and protected by men. And they felt that the feminist movement was chipping away at both their status as wives and mothers and at their right and possibility to be protected and supported by men.
This counter movement of conservative women was led by Mrs. Phyllis Schlafly, a Missouri housewife raised by working class parents who struggled during the Great Depression. Her mother had to work as a librarian, and then a teacher because our father struggled for work during the 1930s. But, like most conservative suburbanites, Phyllis Schlafly’s prospects dramatically improved after World War Two.
Phyllis Schlafly was a very accomplished woman. She grew up in the 20s and 30s. She got a law degree. She worked in a defense plant during World War Two. She married a Catholic, like herself, and their religion played a part in their conservative attitudes. She became very active in Republican policy, but mostly in terms of national defense. She felt that the United States wasn't strong enough against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. She wanted a more—a stronger military system, and her other main goal was limited government. She believed that the government had gotten too big.
After she married Fred Schlafly, Phyllis quit her paperwork and dedicated herself to being a housewife and mother, raising six kids. From then on her nonfamily time was spent volunteering for the Republican Party.
Fred Schlafly was a well-connected businessman who supported his wife's political activities. In 1952, when Fred Schlafly declined to the Republican party's nomination to Congress as a representative from Missouri, the party nominated Phyllis.
While her gender was certainly an obstacle in electoral politics, she focused on issues that she saw as most important to the preservation of the country and that fell under the traditional role of women: protecting the moral fabric of society. Harkening back to the tenants of Republican Motherhood and True Womanhood, two ideologies that we have discussed at length in past episodes, Schlafly relied on her experience as a housewife and a mother to a young toddler as her credentials. She discussed her political platform in terms of wives and mothers organized, efficient, and morally upright nature, declaring that “I feel very disturbed about the corrupt situation in politics. I think that women should get into politics and do something about it.”
Schlafly lost her campaign, but continued in Republican politics, organizing a national, Catholic based anti-communism grassroots movement, and, in 1964, she joined the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican nominee
In 1964 she wrote a book that sold millions of copies, and it was promoting Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination. And she titled it A Choice, Not an Echo. She felt that the Republican Party had become too moderate, too liberal. And she wanted to bring it back to a firm stance for a limited, very limited federal government and a strong national defense. So she went around and gave political speeches, but she wasn't taken all that seriously by the male leaders of the party. And when the Equal Rights Amendment got into Congress in the late 1960s, she took a look at it and thought that that was an issue that was important for her to take a role in and she started a movement against the Equal Rights Amendment. And that issue was a key solidifier of conservatives Women in opposition to feminism.
So Schlafly organized the anti-ERA movement for several reasons, one of which was to reignite her political career. Following Goldwater's crushing defeat, Schlafly began to lose prominence in the Republican Party. The moderate members had found Schlafly too difficult to work with and began pushing her out. Further, they didn't take her views on foreign or military policy seriously.
But the ERA was an area in which she believed she would be taken seriously by conservatives. In the early 1970s, Schlafly sent out a widespread newsletter, arguing that the ERA would subject women to the draft, eliminate a man's financial responsibility to his family, and would weaken women's position in custody disputes. Further, Schlafly argued, it was unnecessary. Any discrimination that women had experienced was already barred by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, meaning that women would lose far more than they would gain with the ERA.
Schlafly’s newsletter spread like wildfire, resonating with the other first generation suburban conservatives. Following this success, Schlafly expanded her activities and began organizing the conservative housewives that made up her newsletter demographic. In October 1972, Schlafly established STOP ERA, which stood for stop taking our privileges, and the organization went national in 1973.
Feminists did not react well to Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative activism. By the time STOP ERA was formed, feminist activists thought that they had all but won and that public opinion was on their side. Many found her to be a hypocrite—she preached that women should stay at home while she was almost never in hers, traveling from event to event. Betty Friedan was livid—as we discussed last time Friedan had an abrasive personality and it would come out during debates with Phyllis Schlafly. At an Illinois debate Friedan stated that she would “like to burn [Schlafly] at the stake” and called her a “Aunt Tom,” a reference to an Uncle Tom, a derogatory term for an African American seen as subservient to whites.
But Schlafly’s anti-ERA campaign wasn't just political bluster, like so many of the feminists believed.
Well, Phyllis Schlafly was particularly motivated by the campaign against the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment. And largely it's about this, and in a lot of the social conservatives of the conservative women's movement, is about threats to the family and the family structure.
This is Dr. Michelle Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown University and a specialist in American Conservative women.
So here they were, you know, trying to protect the traditional family structure of a two-parent family with a mother and a father and a mother that stayed home. And they didn't want to see that threatened. And so it was thought that the Equal Rights Amendment could have some unintended consequences. And she felt that in the home, women were already respected, and you want to protect that traditional family structure, and that the Equal Rights Amendment could end up having unintended consequences that would undermine the traditional family structure. And so it was thought that there's this threat to the traditional family structure, there's a threat to Judeo Christian values also, as many of these movements tend to be religiously based. And so those things are what Phyllis Schlafly was organizing against.
By the time STOP ERA was established, Schlafly had an uphill battle to convince state legislators that feminists were actually in the minority. Public opinion was already in favor of the ERA, which was one of the reasons it was already ratified in over 30 states.
To expand its influence STOP ERA teamed up with several other conservative religious organizations, especially those opposed to feminists push for reproductive freedom and the LGBT activists’ push for rights. Religious activism emerged in the 1960s and 70s as a reaction to the feminist goals of reproductive freedom and to cases like Griswold that made birth control, especially the pill, more accessible to women.
Remember last time, when we mentioned that it was during the 20th century that religious organizations became more involved in the rising debate over reproductive freedom, including publishing articles and pamphlets on the sanctity of life. The Catholic Church was the organization that really kicked off the anti-abortion conservative movement following the Roe decision. Catholics loudly protested the court's opinion, picketing the public engagements of Supreme Court Justices Blackmun and Brennan for years.
These religious organizations were a natural ally of Phyllis Schlafly, who was herself a devout Catholic, (and who was drawn to advocacy for the traditional family, in part due to her faith.) Schlafly’s reliance on the ideology of Republican Motherhood was based on a biblical understanding of the role of men and women in society and the traditional family. She ultimately believed that society was required to protect women as the bearers and raisers of the next generation. All pro-ERA feminists found these protections sexist discrimination, Schlafly considered them a privilege.
This Conservative, Christian ideology attracted other women like Schlafly. The conservative women's movement mobilized mostly housewives and mothers from evangelical and Catholic faiths, many of whom were first generation suburbanites like Schlafly. Often, these women would join from other conservative movements. Like Claire Middleton, a conservative housewife in New York State. When Middleton reached out to Schlafly for assistance in establishing an anti-ERA organization in New York, she offered as her conservative credentials that her husband was the chairman of the New York Right to Life. Schlafly accepted that as proof of their aligned ideologies regarding the priority of the traditional family.
So, while Phyllis Schlafly arrived late to the game, she was a master grassroots organizer and effectively organized a conservative Christian coalition under the banner of anti-ERA. They lobbied and took to the streets. While they employed similar tactics to the feminists who had learned they're protesting from the Civil Rights Movement and anti war movement, anti-ERA demonstrations highlighted their image of the American dream of domestic bliss the best way they could: By showing up as wives and mothers.
Well, they used many of the same tactics. The anti-feminist, the conservative women, put a lot of pressure on their representatives—on their mostly male representatives. But they were also clever about it. They would actually go to a state house, for example, that was considering the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment to the constitution that would guarantee women's equality under the law, and they would bring homemade pies to them. Or they would bring their babies and say “This is my baby girl. I don't want her to be drafted.” They were arguing that the ERA would allow women to be drafted and go into combat. So they were creative, but they were not as dramatic as feminists or some feminists on the radical side, did things like interrupting men In America, beauty contests or going into a bridal show, and actually they did this in New York City. They went to a bridal show, and they released a bunch of mice so that everybody was shrieking. But both sides did pretty much engage in the same political tactics and strategy.
The anti-ERA movement worked—Schlafly’s call to protect the family and preserve the gender status quo influenced the states that had yet to ratify the ERA. While 33 states passed to the amendment, there was a timeframe of 10 years in which a 38-state majority was required to ratify the amendment, and the feminist movements ERA momentum had stalled. The ERA was immersed in conflict, in no small part due to the rapid emergence of STOP ERA, and the feminist movement was unable to rally a cohesive course of action for the remainder states. By the end of the 10 year deadline, the ERA was 3 states short of ratification and ultimately failed to become a part of the United States Constitution.
Phyllis Schlafly had not only been successful in killing the ERA, she had formed a coalition of traditional family organizations that revitalize to the conservative right wing and pushed the National Republican Party further to the right.
And the growth of a conservative women's movement helped to push the Republican party in a more conservative direction in terms of women's issues. The Republican Party was the first national party to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment and did so in 1940. Republicans in Congress supported a lot of the women's rights legislation in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Nixon signed several women's rights bills including Title IX, that piece of legislation that requires equality in education. But, gradually, the Republican Party moved away from its support for women's rights. It withdrew its support for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1980. It took on a very strong anti-abortion stance and it did so in part, I think, because of this surge of conservatism among women who Phyllis Schlafly was mobilizing.
The development of this new right, influenced by a conservative religious coalition, redefined the conservative woman as a religious woman who was focused on social issues and preserving the traditional family. This became the defining characteristic of the conservative woman and the conservative female politician, as well as shaping the definition of a “woman's issue” for decades to come. Next time, on Prologued.