Who Killed the ERA?

tags: ERA, The Equal Rights Amendment

Linda Greenhouse is Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. She writes an opinion column on the Supreme Court and law for The New York Times. Her new book, "Just a Journalist," will be published in October.
 (October 2017)

... What happened? How did an effort born in bipartisanship end in polarizing defeat? Clearly, the ERA prompted a profound debate about the place of women not only in the workforce but in the home, the family, and society itself, in the course of which the amendment became entangled with the rise of the religious right that helped to bring about Reagan’s electoral sweep. Was the ERA the cause of polarization or its victim? Or did it turn out to be something else: a catalyst for positive change in legislative and judicial attitudes? It was while the ERA was pending that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger took the first steps toward expanding the understanding of equal protection to include equality of the sexes, tentatively at first but eventually bringing us to where we are today: living under what some students of social movements, like Reva B. Siegel of Yale Law School, call the de facto ERA.

Jane J. Mansbridge’s Why We Lost the ERA (1986), written in the immediate aftermath of the events it describes by a political scientist who was part of the pro-ERA effort, argues that “much of the support for the Amendment was superficial, because it was based on a support for abstract rights, not for real changes.” Mansbridge’s account holds up surprisingly well. She contrasts a painfully factionalized pro-ERA campaign, riven by debates over what priority to attach to abortion and gay rights, with the rigidly organized and spectacularly successful STOP ERA movement (STOP was an acronym for “stop taking our privileges”) led by Phyllis Schlafly, who persuaded her followers—largely conservative and religious women—that their very way of life was at stake.

Of course, that way of life was disappearing rapidly—as a result not of feminism but of household necessity during the economically stagnant 1970s. As the traditional family structure, with the male breadwinner at its head, became an unaffordable luxury, women entered the paid workforce in great numbers. Yet for many women as well as men, a traditional family remained the ideal, even as it receded from possibility.

This disjunction is at the heart of the historian Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (2012). Self depicts a rich history of struggle over the war in Vietnam, gay rights, and religious values, as well as a conflagration over gender roles prompted by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year celebrations—which actually lasted for three years, from 1975 through 1977. Self understands the period primarily from an economic perspective. Those he labels “breadwinner conservatives” were acutely aware of the changing nature of the family, he writes, “yet chose to understand it ideologically, as a result of feminism, rather than sociologically, as a result of economic change. That analysis led not to proposals to assist women in managing the double day but to the launching of a jeremiad against feminism.” Self observes further that “it was not feminists’ analysis of American society that fell short,” but rather their failure “to manage the political narrative of the ‘crisis of the family.’”

Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand is the most recent effort to probe the feminist/antifeminist struggle of the 1970s for what it might tell us about today’s polarized America. It’s an ambitious book, built around a close study of an event that Self treats in only a few pages and Mansbridge in a single passing reference: the congressionally mandated, federally funded National Women’s Conference that took place in Houston in November 1977. ... 

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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