Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, died in 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

Phyllis Schlafly and the future of ‘women’s issues’

WASHINGTON (RNS) Anyone who deems a liberal political objective “inevitable” hasn’t paid enough attention to the legacy of Phyllis Schlafly.

When Schlafly launched her “Stop ERA” effort in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment had passed the U.S. House and Senate. Within a year 30 states had ratified the amendment to the U.S. Constitution, well on the way to the 38 needed for final ratification. The National Organization for Women urged boycotts of the remaining states, and many groups obliged.

ERA seemed a fait accompli.

Then Schlafly rallied women against the feminist campaign, arguing that the ERA would disregard real differences between men and women and negatively impact women and families. Thanks largely to one courageous woman’s efforts, the amendment that once seemed inevitable stalled and then ultimately failed.

Pilloried at the time, Schlafly has now proved prescient. The “E” in ERA didn’t stand for equality before the law as historically understood in the United States. Rather, it meant equality as enforced sameness, disregarding sex differences in contexts where they are relevant and legitimate.

She predicted this would lead to same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms and women being drafted into the military, among other outcomes. What Schlafly managed to stop in the form of a constitutional amendment, liberals have sought through other means -- including the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision that redefined marriage; the Obama administration’s contested directive on transgender access to school bathrooms, showers and locker rooms; and a bill passed by the Senate requiring women to register for the draft. These developments call for renewed efforts to bring common sense back to current debates.

Out of the Stop ERA initiative emerged Eagle Forum, which Schlafly led for some 40 years. Over that time, Schlafly’s firmness of principle and perseverance inspired generations of young women.

Her legacy offers lessons for the future of women and public policy:

  1. Women’s interests can’t be reduced to a single set of “women’s” issues, as liberal framing has tended to do. All policy issues are relevant to women. Schlafly was outspoken on national security, economics and social issues. She argued against communism, federal overregulation, national education standards and centralized health care; she promoted free markets, parental rights, marriage and conscience protections. We need more women engaged in more issues — women with a commitment to strong national defense, limited government and the preservation of civil society.
  2. Liberal feminists don’t speak for all women, and their proposals don’t work for all women. Women should speak up for policy that maximizes their freedom to make the decisions about work-life balance that make the most sense for them and their families. Policy aimed to help women working outside the home shouldn’t penalize women who decide to raise their children full time. Schlafly’s example shows what women who master the issues, take initiative and rally others to the cause can do. Her Eagle Forum organization has provided a platform for countless women to engage in public issues, from their local school to Congress and the United Nations.
  3. The most basic implication of equality before the law — rejected by liberal feminists — is the right to life. While pushing back on the feminist political agenda, Schlafly worked tirelessly to protect unborn human beings legislatively and in the Republican platform over many years. A women’s movement committed to true human equality must stand for the right to life.

Finally, today some predict the inevitable advance of sexual orientation and gender identity policy that will, for example, threaten the privacy and protection of women and girls in settings like locker rooms and bathrooms. That prospect of “inevitability” should rally a new generation of women to stand up with common sense and courage and change the course of history for themselves and their children.

(Jennifer A. Marshall is a Heritage Foundation vice president and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow in the think tank’s Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity)