WASHINGTON – Disaster was averted when the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally defeated two decades ago, thanks in large part to Phyllis Schlafly, friends and admirers of the anti-feminist activist said Thursday night.
In fact, said supporters at the 30th annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference, if not for Schlafly’s successful efforts to prevent 38 states from ratifying the constitutional amendment, the United States might be sending mothers off to combat in Iraq today.
"Women would have been subject to the draft, they would have been in combat," said Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness, who was on hand to fete Schlafly.
Donnelly, whose group believes that women do not have the same virility of men to perform high-risk jobs in the military, said Schlafly not only stopped the ERA, but went head-to-head with the liberal feminist tidal wave that marked the 1970s.
"That was the first time that a major liberal initiative was stopped cold," Donnelly said. "She made it happen."
That conclusion is subject to considerable astonishment from feminist groups.
Schlafly did not defeat the amendment, countered Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority who fought for the ERA during that critical time in the 1970s. Big business interests like the insurance industry knocked down the amendment even as they were "hiding behind her skirts," Smeal said.
"We opened doors for women. She didn't open doors for women. She slammed them shut. It’s been a constant right-wing attack," she said.
"Everyone was hostile," Schlafly said of reaction to her campaign, but it "forced the feminists to spend their time attacking me."
Speaking from the dais at her tribute dinner Thursday, Schlafly, 78, looked more the part of the grandmother than a liberal iconoclast. Attempting to project that softer image while lobbying on Capitol Hill during the 1970s, Schlafly had her anti-ERA troops bake bread for members of Congress.
But the mother of six, who worked her way through college as a munitions tester, made her mark on the ERA landscape by confronting the mother of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan, and charging state-by-state with a bullhorn to make her case.
In 1972, the ERA was on the verge of passage. The amendment, which had been introduced into and failed to pass every Congress since 1924, finally succeeded in the House and Senate.
It had the support of future President Gerald Ford, followed by President Jimmy Carter, as well as "99 percent of the media," Schlafly said.
But the amendment was a smokescreen, she said, that while pretending to ensure that rights are not abridged because of gender, "it would allow federal power over all traditional differences between men and women."
Schlafly, who still heads the Eagle Forum, a pro-family, anti-abortion watchdog she created in 1975, argues that the ERA would have not only resulted in a female draft, it would have taken away rights to automatic child custody, created coed prisons, erased sex crime laws protecting women, and spurred litigation and judicial activism to a whole new level.
Smeal called that assertion "a gross misstatement," adding that too many loopholes in current federal anti-discrimination laws continue to harm women.
"There would have been more education opportunities. Pension plans would have been more even, birth control would be covered in insurance plans," among other things, Smeal said.
With only 35 of the 38 states ratifying the amendment before the 1982 deadline, the ERA died, felled during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was elected in part because of his opposition to it.
"She showed it for the emperor with no clothes," said former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. "She was very articulate, she knew the issue backwards and forwards and she worked very hard."
An author since 1964, Schlafly recently released her 20th book, a scathing attack on liberal feminism entitled Feminist Fantasies.
Her group still actively opposes the ERA, which was re-introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. That version died in committee.
"It has no value – all of the legitimate equality that [feminists] have purportedly achieved has already been achieved legislatively," said Helen Blackwell, head of the Virginia Eagle Forum. "Any further gender or sex equality laws would actually harm women."