Fifteen years ago, ladies in red
halted the equal rights amendment.
A conservative leader gleefully remembers.
by Phyllis Schlafly
Happy homemaker: Phyllis Schlafly with
GOP senators Jesse Helms and
Orrin Hatch during the stop ERA fight.
A giant rainbow of balloons hovered high over the dais in the Omni Shoreham ball-room in Washington, D.C. Some 1,400 battle-weary but triumphant Stop ERA volunteers gathered to savor their victory when the proposed equal rights amendment died at midnight on June 30, 1982.
Amid the clamor, a hotel security guard rushed toward the emcee, Representative Bob Dornan of California, with urgent news: The hotel had received a phone call that a bomb had been planted in the ballroom. But the Stop ERA revelers just had to laugh. No need to evacuate. We anticipated that a bomb threat would be the radical feminists final insult, and police dogs had already sniffed out the room.
It was the last day of a ten-year David-and-Goliath struggle waged across America. A little band of women, headquartered in the kitchen of my home on the bluffs of the Mississippi in Alton, Illinois, had defeated the big guns. The odds against us could not have been greater. The ERA drew the support of presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter), would-be presidents of all political stripes (from Ted Kennedy to George Wallace), all members of Congress except eight in the Senate and 24 in the House, all the pushy women’s organizations, a consortium of 35 women’s magazines, and 99 percent of the media.
In March 1972, Congress sent ERA to the states for their legislatures to approve, and its ratification by the necessary three-fourths of the 50 states seemed inevitable. But the unstoppable was stopped by our unflappable ladies in red. They descended on state capitols wearing their octagonal STOP ERA buttons. They treated legislators to home-baked bread. And they sweetly and persistently made their case that ERA was a fraud: It would actually take away legal rights that women possessed, such as the right of an 18-year-old girl to be exempt from the military draft and the right of a wife to be supported by her husband.
Pro-ERA advocates argued that women wanted absolute equality anyway. That line didn’t sell in Middle America. A noisy tax-funded national women’s confab in November 1977 had showcased ERAs hidden agenda: abortion funding and same-sex unions. The noose around ERA was tightening.
The war over these ideas included annual clashes in key states. But the decisive battle (i.e., what Midway was to World War II) took place in Springfield, Illinois, on June 18, 1980. If we could win in this northern industrial state, then we could triumph in pro-ERA territory, and other states might swing our way. President Carter rang up Democratic legislators, luring votes for ERA with talk of new federal housing projects for their districts. Back in 1978, Governor James Thompson phoned Republican legislators, reportedly promising “jobs, roads, and bridges” for a yes vote. Later, Chicago pol rallied their lawmakers to ERAs side, allegedly under threat of seeing their relatives and friends lose city patronage jobs. ERA supporters even offered cash bribes for votes. But in 1980, ERA failed once again.
After the votes were tallied, ABC’s Nightline caught Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, in the Illinois House gallery. “There is something very powerful out against us,” she said. “And certainly it isn’t people.” The Stop ERAers knew the source of their power: prayer and the truth.
ERA activists persisted in desperate tactics at that crucial statehouse. In May and June of 1982, an excommunicated Mormon, Sonia Johnson, led a hunger strike in the rotunda, while upstairs other pro-ERAers chained themselves to the door of the senate chamber. On June 25, ERA supporters went to a slaughterhouse, purchased plastic bags of pigs blood, and used it to spell out the names of the legislators they hated most on the capitol’s marble floor. The lawmakers found these tactics, well, unpersuasive. Victory was sealed on June 30, 1982, and many politicians paid tribute. But the day’s heroes were the women who came from the 15 states that never ratified ERA and from the five states that bravely rescinded their previous ratifications.
That evening, singers Bill and Prudence Fields sang the appropriate themes: “The Impossible Dream” and “Great Day.”
George, June 1997