In March of 1972, state legislatures were presented with a Constitutional amendment calling for equal protection for all citizens, regardless of sex. Known as the Equal Rights Amendment, it could only become law if 38 state legislatures ratified within seven years. Within a year, it already had a simple majority. It seemed all but certain that the Amendment would be written into the Constitution by the end of the decade. But it never happened.
The E.R.A was scuttled by a grassroots conservative movement, under the direction of anti-communist activist Phyllis Schlafly. It’s a fascinating story, combining simmering culture wars with a tremendous lesson in the power of grassroots populism. The episode was recently revisited through the Hulu miniseries, Mrs. America. Regrettably, it’s not worth watching. The series shows real promise in the earlier episodes, but by the end it lapses into a cliched morality tale about the dangers of right-wing populism, and the noble struggle to liberate women.
Liberals have always found Schlafly a confusing and maddening figure. Intelligent, fearless, and iron-willed, the young Schlafly might have looked like a natural recruit for the feminist movement, which at that time was energized and ascendant. Basking in the glow of the Civil Rights Movement, these second-wave feminists believed that their turn had come. In the 60’s, they had marched, protested, and lobbied legislators to win blacks the same rights and privileges as whites. Now, in the 70’s, second-wave feminists hoped to do something similar for women, putting them on the same footing with men.
Schlafly was a latecomer to this fight. In her early years, she was a dedicated anti-communist, and an influential supporter of Barry Goldwater. Women’s issues didn’t appear to be on her radar. In the end, Schlafly’s opposition to communism would largely be forgotten, and she would instead go down in history as second-wave feminism’s Public Enemy #1. It was a role that she obviously relished, which is a hard thing for many feminists to comprehend. Why should a strong and resourceful woman like Schlafly wish to fight the liberation of her sex? Shouldn’t she be a natural sympathizer? To many liberals, Schlafly still represents conservative hypocrisy at its worst. By exploiting the heartland’s reactionary rage, she managed to fulfill her personal goals while undercutting other women’s ability to do the same.
That picture may not be entirely unfair, insofar as Schlafly clearly was both canny and ambitious. With strongly populist instincts, she gleefully promoted her chosen issues through calculated, strategic polarization. If anything, the show may be too kind in glossing over the fanatical edges of her early anti-communist commitments. For instance, Schlafly’s connections to the loopy and fanatical John Birch Society are barely mentioned, and we don’t hear how she declared nuclear weapons to be “a marvelous gift given to our country by a wise God”. The real Schlafly had a kooky side, and considering the trajectory of conservatism since her time, it’s not unreasonable to view her as the sort of hard-charging trailblazer who paved the way for a later crop of demagogic polemicists: Ann Coulter, Candace Owens, Tomi Lahren. I myself was both amused and perplexed when Helen Andrews (a chin-scratching conservative of another stripe) wondered aloud why contemporary conservatism was unable to produce another Schlafly. Is that really the case? When I worked for The Federalist, it seemed to me that Schlafly’s ideological descendants were legion.
Presumably, Schlafly’s fanatical edges are downplayed because the show’s creators wish to present Schlafly as more than just a troll. In their narrative, she is an opportunistic political climber who is polarizing the E.R.A. debate as a means to building her own career. This, however, is thoroughly unbelievable. Consider the arc of Schlafly’s life. She began as an ardent supporter of Barry Goldwater, and then moved on to defending traditional gender roles, and organizing women in support of the Reagan Revolution. Later on, she promoted Pat Buchanan, became a vocal immigration hawk, and lived just long enough to bestow her enthusiastic blessing on Donald J. Trump. Does this look like the resume of an unprincipled shill? Maybe to liberals, all conservative activism looks the same, but those of us who actually know something about conservatism can easily recognize a pattern in Schlafly’s political choices. When they attribute her political stances to crass opportunism and shameless ambition, the creators of Mrs. America just show the limits of their own political insight. In a particularly shameless move, the final episode shows Schlafly heading off for a smoke-filled strategy session with Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. There’s no evidence that such a meeting ever took place.
Looking at the rest of Schafly’s Stop E.R.A. movement, we see a similar story. The crusading housewives are cute as buttons, but it’s difficult to keep them straight. For the most part, their characters are flat and underdeveloped, standing starkly in contrast to the exquisitely nuanced feminists. Inevitably, this imbalance leaves viewers with the impression that a coterie of strong, interesting, and forward-looking women was bested by a cluster of reactionary sheeple. In the opening episodes of Mrs. America, we were permitted to have some sympathy for the members of Stop E.R.A, who were drawn to Schlafly because she presented their homemaking efforts as honorable, and worthy of respect. By the end though, the women who have stayed closest to Schlafly have degenerated into mean-spirited, power-hungry harpies, while her kindest and most thoughtful friend, Alice Macray, has become disillusioned with both Schlafly and her movement. In a groan-worthy final scene, Macray has a brief encounter with her onetime friend, in which she mentions that she’s gotten a job, and that she finds her work “empowering.” “You used to feel empowered by me,” observes Schlafly. “I used to be scared,” responds Macray, before driving away. It’s clear that this encounter never took place, because Macray was not even a real person. The writers literally invented this “friend” from whole cloth, so that Schlafly would have someone to betray.
To some extent, it is heartening to see contemporary liberals wrestling with the question of why second-wave feminism failed. The early episodes of Mrs. America are quite interesting in this regard, giving a startlingly unflattering portrayal of some of the icons of the feminist left. Betty Friedan is a hot mess. Bella Abzug is a soulless political strategist. Only Gloria Steinem disappoints here, consistently appearing as a compassionate, visionary, abortion-loving humanitarian. In a show filled with roiling political controversy, Steinem alone somehow manages to be a righteous crusader without ever appearing compromised, or even uncivil. She even chides a male admirer who tries to give her a t-shirt making fun of Schlafly: “Did you really think I would wear that?”
Ironically, given the creators’ own deficiencies in understanding, they show some remarkable frankness in exposing the second-wave feminists’ dangerous ignorance concerning the views and values of their fellow American women. In an early discussion among themselves, they admit that, in a sense, they do really have animosity towards housewives. Equally remarkable are the scenes in which Schlafly is chided and upbraided by her opponents, for claiming that the logic of the E.R.A. might eventually lead to such monstrosities as un-gendered bathrooms, or a movement to draft women. How ridiculous!
After such an intriguing beginning, it’s disappointing to see the show settle into the more familiar, hackneyed narrative. The feminists learn, grow, and come together in a beautiful kumbaya moment, only to be foiled by hateful reactionaries and their demagogic puppet-masters. It turns out that religious women really are just pawns of the patriarchy, while leftists magically have godlike clarity, looking down sadly on a sinful society that is not yet ready to receive them. It’s deflating. Like the frustrated second-wave feminists, we end the series on a melancholy note, wearily wondering whether anything can ever really change.
Forty years after the events depicted, the melancholy of the final episode still feels remarkably relevant. Both liberals and conservatives seem perpetually dissatisfied with the position of women in our present culture. Conservatives look on contemporary culture and despair. Church weddings, babies, and contented homemakers all seem to become rarer with each passing year. It’s hard to imagine traditional gender norms making a comeback at this point. That might seem good for “the libbers,” but they too have reason to weep. Across the decades, one pro-fem crusade has followed another, but here we sit in 2020, trying to decide which lecherous white man we’d prefer to see in the Oval Office. Women are less happy than they used to be, and they still earn less than men. Abortion has been legal for decades, but the pro-life movement refuses to die, and Schlafly-esque grassroots populism has played a critical role in breaking the left’s dominating control of the judiciary.
One way or another, someone had to win the battle over the E.R.A. If we play our cards right though, we may all be able to lose the war over women.
Or, perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe a better read on this historical episode would start with the recognition that there were no heroines in the fight over the E.R.A. The women of that era believed that they were fighting for the future. That was somewhat true, but perhaps their daughters and granddaughters would have been better served by a less aggressive approach, which avoided the kind of deliberate polarization that Schlafly and the second-wave feminists both tried to use to their advantage. Was it necessary to put abortion at the absolute center of the feminist cause? Did Schlafly have to be so uncompromising about denying the need for any reform of traditional gender roles?
As Schlafly amply illustrated, polarization can be a potent political weapon. As she also showed, the victories it brings us are often Pyrrhic. Once the battle lines are drawn, the other side inevitably comes to be seen as the true obstacle to real thriving, and we get locked into a kind of cultural trench warfare. That can be very bad, especially if your true goal is to cultivate a flourishing garden where women can be happy and free.
Women are not exactly the same as men. The second-wave feminists were particularly obtuse about denying the significance of natural difference, in part because they were working from an inappropriate template. It never made sense to re-enact the Civil Rights Movement with women as the primary beneficiaries. Natural differences between the sexes are both greater, and more morally significant, than differences between ethnic groups. In refusing to acknowledge this, second-wave feminists ended up alienating many women, especially when they demanded release from woman’s most distinctive feature: the womb.
We can recognize those errors while still agreeing that women in this era had some good reasons to lobby for cultural reform. Schlafly always insisted that American women were supremely blessed, and perfectly free to do whatever they wanted. But was it right to tolerate a world in which many men refused to consider women for valuable opportunities, simply because they found the atmosphere of the boys’ club more comfortable? Was it reasonable to perpetuate cultural norms that expected women to shoulder the great majority of unpaid domestic labor? What is the appropriate way to curb the behavior of men who use their status or authority to exploit women in their workplaces? For cultural crusaders like Schlafly, these hard questions could generally be skirted, because leftist extremism supplied her with lower-hanging fruit. That was good, perhaps, for Stop E.R.A., but it may not have been good for future generations of American women. Two generations after the Steinem-and-Schlafly showdown, the E.R.A. is still with us, unpassed but still not completely dead. The questions linger, too. As a historical period piece, Mrs. America is not particularly insightful, but in another way, it may still have value. The limitations of the series may tell us all we need to know about the present state of American culture. To move forward, we needn’t start by picking a side. Let’s start by putting the whole sorry episode in our taillights.