All About Phyllis Schlafly: The Woman Who Killed The Equal Rights Amendment

How much do you know about Phyllis Schlafly, the “first lady of anti-feminism” and the woman who defeated the Equal Rights Amendment? Schlafly, born in 1924, became the loudest voice in the attack on women’s rights in the 1970s. When the Equal Rights Amendment was approved by Congress in 1972, Schlafly made it her life’s work to defeat it.

Phyllis Schlafly and feminism were not on good terms. But as a beneficiary of second-wave feminism, Schlafly was able to become an activist and lobbyist, working outside the home while insisting that most women wanted to be homemakers. Just like female celebrities who claim they are not feminists, Schlafly benefited from the work of women who fought for her right to vote and voice her opinions.

And her opinions were pretty bleak. In her attack on the ERA, Schlafly claimed the bill would send women to Vietnam, create unisex bathrooms, and lead to gay marriage. The simple idea that the government should not discriminate based on sex—at the heart of the ERA’s 54-word text—would lead to a wave of abortions, “homosexual privileges,” and the downfall of civilization. Unfortunately, Schlafly’s scare tactics and blatant homophobia succeeded, and the ERA never became law.

  • The Equal Rights Amendment Went Before Congress Every Year from 1923 to 1972
    Photo: State Archives of Florida / Florida Memory / Public Domain

    The Equal Rights Amendment Went Before Congress Every Year from 1923 to 1972

    The Equal Rights Amendment made one simple statement: the government should not deny rights based on someone’s sex. The constitutional amendment was first introduced in 1923 by Alice Paul, one of the women who successfully fought for the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. In her introduction to the ERA, Paul said, “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”

    The ERA was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 to 1972. The text read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” And in 1972, the ERA passed the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The ERA went to the states for ratification, and within the first year 30 of the necessary 38 states ratified the proposed amendment. Everything seemed to be on track—until Phyllis Schlafly started her campaign against equal rights.

  • Phyllis Schlafly Declared The ERA Would Hurt Housewives
    Photo: Pere Marquette Press

    Phyllis Schlafly Declared The ERA Would Hurt Housewives

    Phyllis Schlafly became a national figure in 1964, when she self-published A Choice, Not An Echo. The book attacked East Coast Republican Party elites and claimed they repressed the voices of grassroots conservatives. It sold more than three million copies and helped Barry Goldwater gain the GOP nomination in the 1964 Presidential election. A young Jeff Sessions read the book in high school and saw it as a manual for challenging the establishment. 

    But Schlafly’s major claim to fame was her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. As soon as the ERA passed Congress in 1972, Schlafly formed the STOP ERA organization—the acronym stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” Schlafly’s argument rested on the idea that equality would take away women’s special role as a homemaker—which, to Schlafly, was a woman’s highest calling.

  • Schlafly Argued Women Would Lose Rights Because Of The ERA

    In an interview with People in 1975, Schlafly declared, “I argue ERA strictly and solely on the rights women will lose because of it.” She claimed that if the amendment passed, “the right to be provided with a home, to go to a single-sex college, and to stay home and be a mother will be lost.”

    Schlafly turned the debate on the ERA into a referendum on traditional gender roles—falsely claiming that the amendment would prevent husbands from financially supporting their spouses. Political scientist Jane J. Mansbridge wrote in her history of the ERA, “Many people who followed the struggle over the ERA believed — rightly in my view — that the Amendment would have been ratified by 1975 or 1976 had it not been for Phyllis Schlafly’s early and effective effort to organize potential opponents.”

  • Most Women Want To Be Homemakers, Schlafly Claimed
    Photo: Florida Memory / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Most Women Want To Be Homemakers, Schlafly Claimed

    In 1972, at the beginning of her fight against the ERA, Phyllis Schlafly argued that feminists and women’s libbers were attacking “real” women. “The women’s libbers don’t understand that most women want to be wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role,” she claimed.

    Traditional gender roles were at the heart of Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA. Women should be in the home, she argued, and equal rights would force them to be treated like men. She said that feminists loved to humiliate men and should not be treated like ladies. She also claimed that feminism was a war on men.

  • STOP ERA Argued That The ERA Would Force Women Into Military Combat
    Photo: U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    STOP ERA Argued That The ERA Would Force Women Into Military Combat

    The early debate over the ERA took place during the unpopular Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, 2.2 million Americans were drafted into the U.S. military. Phyllis Schlafly used the draft in her campaign against the ERA. She argued that if the ERA passed, women would be drafted into the military and forced to serve in combat.

    As with other arguments against the ban on government sex discrimination, Schlafly’s use of the draft was meant to frighten Americans that equal rights for women meant that women would actually lose rights. Instead of framing the ERA as an attempt to protect women’s rights, Schlafly argued it would take away rights from women.

  • Schlafly Linked The ERA To Abortion Rights
    Photo: Donn Dughi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Schlafly Linked The ERA To Abortion Rights

    Phyllis Schlafly was not a fan of abortion. She called sex-ed classes “in-home sales parties for abortion.” And she used abortion as a wedge issue to argue against the ERA. In 1977, Schlafly organized a “pro-family rally,” held outside of the National Women’s Conference. Three first ladies— Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson —were at the Women’s Conference.

    One of the speakers at Schlafly’s event, Representative Bob Dornan, said, “The greatest tragedy of all was to see three former first ladies of this nation approving of sexual perversion and the murder of young people in their mother’s wombs.”  Schlafly herself argued in 1999 that the “ERA means abortion funding.”