The Behind-the-Scenes True Story of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution. It was advertised as a great benefit to women, something that would rescue them from centuries of second-class citizenship and for the first time put women in the constitution.

The argument of those who were for it was that American women are discriminated against by a male-dominated social and legal structure; thus, the Constitution should be changed to prohibit any difference of treatment based on “sex.”

ERA was passionately debated across America from 1972 to 1982. Passing Congress with only 23 out of 435 representatives and only 8 out of 100 Senators voting no, ERA was sent to the states on March 22,1972.

Feminists had the semantics, the media, and the momentum on their side. The ERA sounded so benign. Who could possibly oppose it? Within the first twelve months, the ERA was ratified in 30 states and needed only 8 more states to become the twenty-seventh amendment to the Constitution.

Supporters of the ERA included politicians such as Ted Kennedy, George Wallace, and three presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Only one lone senator out of a hundred was willing to speak out against ERA—Senator Sam Irving—and a mere three House members out of 435: Henry Hyde, George Hanson, and Bob Dornan.

ERA was actively supported by prominent women’s organizations, a consortium of 33 women’s magazines, numerous Hollywood and television celebrities, and 99% of the media.

Then came Phyllis Schlafly and her unflappable supporters who, headquartered in Phyllis’s kitchen on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, challenged all the big guns of modern politics—much like 21st century Tea Partiers.

However, Stop ERAers had no Internet, no e-mail, no fax machines—and no Fox News—to rally support for their cause. They had only the telephone and the Phyllis Schlafly Report, a four-page monthly newsletter that began the campaign with its February 1972 issue, “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?

Over a ten-year period, Phyllis wrote a hundred issues on her monthly newsletter and flyers about ERA. Her reports defined the legal rights women would lose if ERA were ever ratified. While pretending to benefit women, ERA would actually eliminate rights that women then possessed, such as the right of an 18-year-old girl not to be drafted and sent into military combat and the right of a wife to be supported by her husband.  

The military draft proved to be a major argument because the United States was just coming out of the Vietnam War. Most pro-ERAers were over draft age and enthusiastically confirmed that they wanted to make the military draft sex neutral and send girls to war just like men.

Stop ERAers also argued that ERA would give a blank check to the federal courts to define the words sex and equality of rights. Section 2 of ERA would transfer to the federal government power over all laws that traditionally allowed difference of treatment on account of sex: marriage, property, divorce, alimony, child custody, adoptions, abortion, homosexual laws, sex crimes, private and public schools, prison regulations, and insurance.

Supporters of ERA peddled the notion that it would give women better jobs and a pay raise. But Stop ERAers exposed that as a fraud because U.S. employment laws had already been made sex-neutral via the Equal Pay Act of 1963, prior to second-wave feminism getting off the ground.

ERA supporters claimed the amendment would “put women in the Constitution,” but the Stop ERAers actually read the Constitution. They explained that the Constitution is already sex-neutral, using gender-neutral words such as “we the people,” person, citizen, resident, author, President, Senator, and Member.

Throughout the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement—led by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—enjoyed unparalleled access to the media. Feminists put Phyllis up against all of their heavyweights, starting with Betty Freidan in 1973 at Illinois State University, where Friedan famously said to Phyllis, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.”

The only forum where Stop ERA received equal time with feminists was at the state legislative hearings. Stop ERAers presented legislators with powerful arguments and documentation provided by the Phyllis Schlafly Report.

Springfield, Illinois, where the legislature voted down ERA every year for ten years, was ground zero in the battle. Stop ERA staged many demonstrations, attracting thousands of citizens opposed to the amendment. Media and political pressures in favor of the amendment were so powerful and persistent that nobody believed ERA could be defeated. Legislators were too intimidated by the constant drumbeat of the media—the razzmatazz of lobbying by Hollywood and television celebrities such as Alan Alda, Marlo Thomas, big money, and others.

But the tide turned on April 27, 1976, when a thousand people came to Springfield to oppose ERA. People of all religions, denominations and walks of life came into the political process for the first time and began to work together for a common political goal—namely, protection of the family and of the Constitution itself against radical feminism.

When ERA was voted out of Congress in 1972, it was given a specific deadline of seven years. When pro-ERAers realized they were running out of time—and arguments— Congress appropriated the then significant sum of $5 million to stage a tax-funded feminist convention in Houston under the chairmanship of New York Congresswomen Bella Abzug.

Called International Women’s Year (IWY), it was designed a massive media event to persuade the remaining states to ratify ERA. When it opened In Houston, three first ladies were sitting on the platform: Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Lady Bird Johnson. Among the delegates was every feminist you’ve ever heard of, along with many elected officials. Three thousand members of the media came to give 24/7press and television coverage.

Feminists cheered for ERA and rallied behind their demands: taxpayer funding of abortions, the entire gay rights agenda, universal day care, and some twenty other feminist goals.

The tremendous media coverage backfired, for it showed Americans what feminism is really about. The most popular buttons worn by delegated were, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” and “Mother Nature is a lesbian.” At various booths, you could pick up booklets on “What Lesbians Do.”

Since International Women’s Year, ERA has been voted on about 25 times—in state legislators, in Congress, and in several state-wide referenda. But it never scored another victory.

Since IWY turned out to be a public relations disaster, President Jimmy Carter and Congress gave pro-ERAers a three-year time extension, which merely increased the intensity and nastiness of the battle.

Excommunicated Mormon Sonja Johnson staged a hunger strike in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol. She was joined by Dick Gregory and other experienced anti-Vietnam war hunger strikers, whereupon a group of pro-ERAers chained themselves to the door of the Senate chamber. Then, on June 25, 1982, pro-ERAers went to the local slaughterhouse, bought plastic bags of pigs’ blood, and used it to write on the Illinois Capitol’s marble floor the names of the legislators they hated the most.

Time was running out for ERA, but pro-ERAers never ran out of money. In the last weeks before their second deadline, they spent $15 million on a television advertising campaign featuring Hollywood celebrities such as Ed Asner (“Lou Grant”) and Carole O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”).

The most dramatic Illinois vote came on June 18, 1980. Tension was high, and all the national media were in the house gallery. President Jimmy Carter telephoned Democratic legislators and promised them federal housing projects in their districts if they would vote yes on ERA. Governor James Thompson telephoned Republican legislators and promised “dams, roads and bridges” in their district for a yes vote.

Mayor Jane Byrne phoned Chicago legislators and threatened that they and their relatives would be fired from their city patronage jobs unless they voted yes. Democratic legislators who were beholden to the Chicago machine wept publicly as they apologized for having to vote yes so their relatives wouldn’t lose their jobs. Cash bribes flowed, and the media were gloating.

Yet Illinois again voted no. On June 4,1982, when North Carolina defeated ERA for the last time, pro-ERAers sent bags of chicken manure to the 23 senators who voted no. And on June 21, Florida defeated ERA for the last time.

ERA died when the unconstitutional time extension expired at midnight on June 30,1982.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, a coach, and a podcast host committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.