Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Phyllis Schlafly (left) debating Betty Friedan on the set of "Good Morning America" in 1976.

In 1971, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which guaranteed “equality of rights under the law” for men and women – the House of Representatives by a vote of 354-24, the Senate by a vote of 84-8.

It seemed certain at the time that this amendment would be ratified by three-quarters of the states, as required by the U.S. Constitution. Both the Democratic and Republican parties supported it (including President Nixon), and 30 states – in fact – ratified it within a year.

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But then Phyllis Schlafly entered the scene. A conservative activist who had helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican nomination in1964, Schlafly organized a grassroots movement against the ERA, arguing that it would harm women, not help them.

Feminists vehemently disagreed (and feminist icon Betty Friedan once said she wanted to burn Schlafly at the stake for her activism), but Schlafly proceeded undeterred, and ultimately succeeded in killing the ERA. (By the end of the ratification deadline, only 35 states had approved it – three shy of the necessary 38 – and five of those states had in the meantime rescinded their ratification.)

Andrew Schlafly, one of Schlafly’s six children, recently spoke to The Jewish Press about his legendary mother, who passed away two years ago last week at the age of 92.

The Jewish Press: Why did your mother oppose the ERA?

Schlafly: Because it would have eliminated certain privileges that women have in our society like not being drafted into the army and collecting on their husband’s Social Security pensions after their husbands pass away.

She felt it was important for husbands to be expected to support their family and that wives have the opportunity to spend some time at home raising the children. Since women typically live longer than men, she felt the man’s pension should go to his wife for the years she’d spent raising the children. She felt women needed to be protected.

Your mother once said, “Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature.” What did she mean by that?

She believed men are fundamentally different from women. Only women can have children. She claimed those differences are God-given, and that it’s a mistake to try to change or ignore them and create a society that doesn’t recognize them. That’s what the ERA would have done.

Your mother also said, “Don’t call me ‘Ms.’ To me, it means misery.” Why does it mean misery?

Because “Ms.” – which came into use at the same time as the ERA fight – is a denial of “Mrs.” and the role of the wife. She felt feminism was misleading young women.

Many of the feminists, as they got older, became bitter about the path they had chosen because they had been talked out of having children until it was too late. My mother saw that as sad, and that’s why she regarded feminism as a road to misery and didn’t want others to be misled by it….

She would also bring up little instances of chivalry she enjoyed and didn’t want taken away – like a man opening the door for a woman.

Considering all the forces arrayed against your mother, how did she manage to prevail in derailing the ERA?

It was a miracle. I remember it vividly. I was a teenager in high school and lived the drama. I remember when the other side felt they had the votes in Illinois, which would have been the 36th state to ratify the ERA and given them momentum to get the final two. But they called it up, and it fell short. It was really a miracle!

Some critics wonder how your mother could have been such a strong proponent of traditional roles for women when she herself was such a public figure, lecturing all over the country, and even going to law school as the mother of young children. 

She went to law school only because she was criticized for not being a lawyer. That was never an ambition of hers. She could have gone to law school after she got her Masters in at Harvard, but she didn’t want to because she wanted to have a family.

She always worked at home. She was very much a family person and taught all us how to read before we went to school. So I don’t think that criticism is really fair. By the ‘70s most of us were teenagers, so she didn’t have young children at home when she was fighting the ERA….

She would tell college women: “Look, you can have it all, but don’t try to have it all at the same time. You have to sequence it. Spend 10-20 years raising your children and then have the career you want.” And that’s what she did.

Some critics say your mother ultimately lost her ERA fight since almost everything she opposed in the ERA was subsequently enacted into law by Congress. How do you respond?

I disagree with that. The federal courts do not have the power they would have had under the ERA. It would have given them a blank check to get involved in family matters, marriage, custody, divorce, etc.

The other thing is that my mother was able to win the cultural fight, which was just as big as the legal fight. Because of her taking a stand, it created respectability for many women to want to stay home to raise their children.

Some experts see a direct line from your mother’s activism in the 1970s to the Reagan Revolution, New Gingrich’s Contract with America, the Tea Party movement, and now the Trump presidency. Do you agree?

I think my mother founded the modern conservative movement. In the ‘60s, my mother set the foundation in a book called A Choice Not an Echo, which advocated that we should have the opportunity to elect someone outside the establishment representing the grassroots and not controlled by the insiders.

And that was really clairvoyant. It anticipated the rise of Reagan and then of Donald Trump, both of whom were kind of outsiders.

And then, in the ‘70s with her work against ERA, she set forth socially conservative principles that really are the bedrock of the conservative movement today – things like marriage, family, religion, morality, pro-life, etc. that Republicans were not only not talking about, but were, in fact, on the wrong side of the track.

From where did your mother derive her beliefs?

She really was original. She got her Master’s in political science and was more of an intellectual than most people would probably recognize. But she also had trouble having children at one point, and that tends to influence people.

She genuinely liked babies. Their sight would just light up her smile and I think that sort of formed her pro-life views, for example.

Did religion play a role in her thinking?

She was very devout and prayed constantly. You may not be aware, but the Orthodox Jewish community played a key role in defeating the ERA when it came up again in Congress in 1983.

The very effective House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, was a formidable adversary and he brought it up for a vote. They were hoping to pass it and send it back to the states to ratify.

You are a lawyer and active in conservative politics. Do you see your activism as an extension of your mother’s?

I do. My mother wrote four times as much as William Shakespeare, and it’s all prophetic. I don’t have any special access to it but I do feel that calling.

You attended Harvard Law School at the same time as Barack Obama. Did you know him? If yes, what were your impressions?

We were on the Law Review together. He was often not around, which was bizarre for someone who was elected as its president for political reasons. He was also not nearly as hardworking as many other members of the Review.

Your mother ultimately succeeded in derailing the ERA, but she must have suffered setbacks along the way. How did she handle them?

When you need someone to lean on, God’s always there, she’d say. She was also always very positive. She ran for Congress in 1970 and lost – it turned out it was a hard year for Republicans – but she said she was glad she ran because it was a good experience. But then, a few years later, she said she was also glad she had lost because she was [free to be able to fight] the ERA.

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Molly Resnick, a former NBC TV News producer and founder of MATCKH (Mothers Against Teaching Children to Kill and Hate), is a popular international lecturer and motivational speaker. She can be reached at mollymres@gmail.com.