On the day on which the Equal Rights Amendment failed, Phyllis Schlafly commented, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think today marks the greatest victory for womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rights since the passage of the womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suffrage amendment to the constitution.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The statement outraged ERA supporters. But it was right. The womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suffrage amendment granted women a right they deserved simply because they are persons and citizens. The ERA threatened to remove the special rights that women need as women.
Women of SchlaflyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s generation usually married with the understanding that the husband would be the breadwinner and the wife the home manager. While there were many variations on this basic theme with women such as SchlaflyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own mother pursuing paid work outside the home and for a time even being the familyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main support, it remains true that most families relied principally on the manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s income. Laws reflected this understanding by making support the husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s legal responsibility. The ERA would have voided all such laws. Perhaps most important, as Schlafly pointed out, the amendment had no Ã¢â‚¬Å“grandmotherÃ¢â‚¬Â clause that would have made the laws mandating husband-support continue to apply to those who had married under them. Thus, female full-time homemakers would, at least on paper, lose a major right on which they had depended. This led Schlafly to nickname the ERA Ã¢â‚¬Å“the menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s liberation amendment.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ERA activists often found that working women felt threatened by the amendment. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, writing in her book, A Lesser Life: The Myth of WomenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Liberation in the United States, discusses an encounter that underlined this sense of being threatened. An ERA activist tried to talk a female factory worker in supporting the ERA. The factory worker looked skeptical and retorted, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I heard this Phyllis Something-or-other say on TV that it might mean taking the couch out of the restroom that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to put in for us women.Ã¢â‚¬Â The activist replied that it might mean putting one in for the men. Ã¢â‚¬Å“If you think life is fair, forget it,Ã¢â‚¬Â the factory worker replied. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got three kids at home and a husband who wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t lift a finger!Ã¢â‚¬Â
What can we learn from the above encounter? One lesson is that the perception of men as lazy slobs is a prejudice not dependent on oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s politics. Thus, Schlafly was misleading to characterize her opponents as Ã¢â‚¬Å“bitter women.Ã¢â‚¬Â Bitterness exists on all political sides as well as among the apolitical. A second lesson is that some women value traditionally female privileges like couches in the restroom. Responses to a previous blog indicated that men as a group may not want them. In either case, it is quite possible that, under the ERA, the couch could be pulled out of the womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s room without being put in the menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s.
Perhaps SchalflyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s strongest and most important anti-ERA arguments centered around the fact that it would require that women register for the draft if men must and prohibit the military from making distinctions as to combat assignments. ERA supporter Martha Griffiths once called this point a Ã¢â‚¬Å“red herring.Ã¢â‚¬Â However, it was a red herring her side refused to remove from the amendment by putting in a clause saying it would not affect the draft or combat assignments.
Women can and do serve their country in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s military in a variety of capacities. The prohibition from frontline ground combat is necessary if America is to win its wars. After all, the strength and speed differences between women and men mean that, if womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sports are to exist at all, sports teams must be sex-segregated. Similarly, a mixed or female frontline infantry unit fighting an all-male unit would be quickly clobbered. When Fred Schalfly was urging his wife to campaign against the ERA, he noted, Ã¢â‚¬Å“No military has ever won a war by sending women to its frontlines.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Phyllis Schlafly was right to point out that treating the sexes equally for purposes of draft registration and frontline infantry combat would be to ignore basic physical realities. Demanding more of a group of people than they are able to physically give is not liberation but a grotesque oppression.