Melinda Henneberger

Everything Phyllis Schlafly warned the Equal Rights Amendment would do happened anyway

One of the first opinion columns I ever wrote, as a high school junior, warned that many of the protections American women already enjoyed would disappear faster than Cinderella’s fairy-tale footmen if we ever ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.

A Phyllis Schlafly reader since age 13, when my Aunt Ginny gave me a subscription to the Eagle Forum’s anti-feminist newsletter for my birthday, I really should have given the byline in our school paper to the bouffanted far-right firebrand who killed the ERA.

Now, of course, the amendment is back from the dead and only one state short of ratification — you could be that one, Missouri. Its sponsor in our state Senate is only one vote short of getting her bill to the floor. So I took a deep breath and read back over “ERA: Great ripoff of women’s rights.”

What jumps out at me, beyond how much I used to know that I no longer do, is all that has and has not happened in the decades since then.

Everything Schlafly said the ERA would bring about has happened anyway, without its ratification.

And the equality she said we already had but didn’t really need, since men were supposed to take care of us, we didn’t and still don’t have.

Young me repeated Schlafly’s worry that if the amendment passed, men would no longer pay alimony. (You might ask: What is alimony?) Bathrooms would be unisex, and oh no, military women would serve right alongside men in combat roles. Same-sex marriage and adoption would be the law of the land. (Yes, I peaked as a prospective campus speaker at about 15.)

Here’s one argument I didn’t even remember: Apparently, if the Constitution were ever amended in this way, rape would no longer be a crime! (High school me did not know that this offense was so rarely prosecuted, or that far in the future, efforts to change that would face an enormous backlash.)

In 1975, what Phyllis and her young subscriber wondered is why we’d give up any protections in return for the equal pay and educational opportunities that had already been written into law.

Here’s why: What protections? Discrimination has been slowed, but not nearly enough. And statutes can be passed and repealed, as Missouri lawmakers have been working so hard to do with the Clean Missouri ethics reform and minimum wage increase that voters overwhelmingly approved just months ago.

The U.S. Constitution is much sturdier and harder to ignore or fiddle with, as the nearly century-long push to recognize women’s equality proves.

Along with the National Review and Human Events, teenage me should also have been reading Alice Paul, who when she introduced the ERA in 1923 said, “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”

Though I didn’t mention abortion at all in that long-ago column, that was always a conservative argument against the ERA, and now it’s essentially the only one: Opponents of abortion rights say it would bar Congress and the states from limiting abortion in any way.

“The majority of this is about abortion,” Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said in the recent committee hearing on the Missouri bill. “I know what Jesus would do in this realm.”

Abortion rights proponents also generally argue that yes, the ERA would solidify those rights.

I’m not as certain as I was in 1975 just what the result would be.

But I hope that the bill’s Democratic sponsor, St. Louis Sen. Jill Schupp, is right when she says, “I don’t believe this undoes” either abortion rights or limits. She’s pro-choice, but says, “I don’t think the ERA is about abortion rights. I did not file the ERA because of abortion; these are separate issues.”

Here’s why she did: so discrimination would be harder to get away with. “It’s a workforce development and economic development issue.”

If Missouri did become the 38th state to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, that rumbling you’d hear would surely be the St. Louis native Schlafly, who died in 2016, trying to tear down the veil and get back in the fight. And if you don’t want to wait another who-knows-how-many years for equality under our founding document, now is the time to call your Missouri representative and senator and let them know that.

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