One of the more surreal moments of my four years in college was the evening Phyllis Schlafly came to town.
Although Schlafly, who died on Monday, was correctly known as a conservative Republican firebrand, the audience at her speaking engagement that night wasn’t necessarily any less liberal than the university’s student population as a whole. As someone whose own worldview was at least 80 percent different from hers, I attended the talk out of sheer morbid curiosity, aware of Schlafly’s considerable historical significance as a 1970s right-wing ideologue, and I suspect that a large portion of my fellow attendees were there for the same reason.
Her spiel (I quickly gathered) was essentially the same speech she’d been giving all across the country for the past 30-odd years: A broadside against feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, abortion, the sexual revolution in general, and any notion that, in matters of love and marriage, men and women should be treated equally. In her time, Schlafly was often referred to as an “anti-feminist,” and in person she certainly lived up (or down) to that moniker, asserting, among other things, “Feminism is incompatible with happiness.”
Among today’s progressives, of course, hysterical opinions like that are increasingly viewed as relics of an ancient, oppressive regime that has rightly (if slowly) ground itself into dust. Maybe it was socially acceptable to rail against gender equality and sexual freedom in, say, 1973, but our society has since gotten over itself and embraced legal equality of the sexes as a veritable no-brainer and a core American value.
Or so we would like to think.
Sure, most of the country has moved on from the misogynistic paternalism of the 1950s, but there is still a robust minority (i.e., the Republican Party) that feels differently about the respective roles of men and women, and it remains a force to be reckoned with.
And one reason for that is Phyllis Schlafly. If her values have ceased to be America’s values, the residual strength of anti-feminism—the very fact that men and women are not treated equally in 2016—is thanks to her leadership on behalf of that powerful, lousy idea.
Above all, Schlafly’s legacy rests on her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1970s. First introduced in 1923—and on a regular basis thereafter—the ERA would have enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” If that sounds fairly uncontroversial to you, Congress apparently agreed: In 1971, the House approved the ERA by a score of 354-24, followed by an equally overwhelming vote in the Senate and the blessing of no less than President Nixon to boot. By then, all it needed was ratification by three-quarters of individual state legislatures and gender equality would’ve become the law of the land.
So what happened? Well, it never quite got there. While a bucket load of states ratified the ERA almost instantaneously—and a handful more tagged along in subsequent months—advocates of the amendment never reached the 38-state threshold they needed and the amendment ultimately faded away. Why? In short, because Schlafly and company persuaded those few remaining states that total equality of the sexes wasn’t such a hot idea after all, partly by arguing (wait for it…) that a constitutional right to equal protection based on gender would be irreparably harmful to women.
The continuing story of the Equal Rights Amendment is a true American classic, and it’s part of an engaging exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., called, “Amending America.” With the Archives being home to original prints of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, this temporary exhibit looks beyond both documents to examine all 27 constitutional amendments that have been ratified to date, plus a sampling of 11,000 proposed amendments that, like the ERA, didn’t make it across the finish line.
You read that right: American citizens—individuals, organizations and sometimes entire states—have attempted to change the text of America’s most sacred legal document on 11,000 separate occasions over the last 229 years and have failed 99.8 percent of the time. If you ever wonder why things in America never seem to change all that much, there’s your answer.
The truth is that our founders deliberately made it very, very difficult to alter our Constitution once it was signed, figuring that the supreme law of the land should only be tampered with under extraordinary circumstances and with near-unanimous support from one end of the continent to the other. In this über-polarized era, it’s no wonder we’ve only done it once in the last 45 years.
In the National Archives exhibit, we are treated to a contextualization of the 27 amendments that succeeded, with various explanations as to why and how certain proposals passed muster with both Congress and the states while so many others didn’t.
The first thing to notice—as this show does—is that more than half of our Constitution’s amendments in some way concern the question of individual rights—the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to due process and trial by jury, etc. Indeed, no fewer than four amendments deal with voting rights alone, removing restrictions based on race, sex, age and ability to pay a poll tax.
Equally noteworthy is that among the amendments that address individual freedoms, only one—the 18th, establishing Prohibition—had the effect of taking away freedoms instead of expanding them. It can hardly be a coincidence that, a mere 14 years later, the 18th Amendment became the first and only to be unceremoniously axed, following the nation’s collective realization that Prohibition was a terrible idea.
Beyond guaranteeing rights, the object of most successful amendments has been to tweak or clarify the way the government functions—a process whose extreme importance is matched only by its extreme dullness. For every amendment that has granted mass suffrage or prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, there have also been those that have moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20 or outlined when Congress can (and cannot) give itself a raise.
What’s the common denominator? Not much, other than a critical mass of concerned citizens looking at a particular national imperfection and thinking, “You know, we really oughta fix that.”
Hence the rather hilarious variety of failed proposals over the years. Among my favorites spotlighted at the National Archives:
- A suggestion in the 1930s that instead of banning alcohol, the U.S. simply ban drunkenness, instead.
- A plea, 100 years earlier, that no one who has engaged in dueling be allowed to run for public office.
- A more radical plan to abolish the presidency altogether and replace it with a three-person executive council.
- A similar scheme to divide the vice presidency among three people, ranking them, respectively, as Veep No. 1, Veep No. 2 and Veep No. 3.
- A proposal—just before the U.S. entered World War I—that every war be put to a popular vote, and that everyone who votes “yes” be automatically enlisted to fight it.
Certainly, not all of the 11,000 duds were that entertaining, creative or outright loony. Nonetheless, no matter how reasonable and practicable the more serious ones have been, they have failed to win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and/or three-quarters of state legislatures, begging the question of what sort of amendment could possibly succeed in 2016?
Personally, I’d love to see the Second Amendment canned as definitively as the 18th, but I know better than to hold my breath. Like much of America, I’d appreciate chucking the Electoral College once and for all, granting either statehood or basic representation to Washington, D.C., and getting big money out of politics, but is the status quo on those issues really so dire that we could muster a sufficient groundswell to actually get the job done?
I suspect not, and that points to the unfortunate truth that national consensus on a major subject—no matter how obvious in retrospect—tends only to occur once in a blue moon. Lest we forget the immortal wisdom—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill—that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln enlightened us about the backbreaking work required to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and that was after four years of fighting a damn war over the issue. For its part, the original Bill of Rights was less an organized coming-together of common interests than an elaborate bargaining chip crafted by James Madison to coax a handful of reticent states into ratifying the Constitution itself.
Indeed, in many ways, this entire country was haphazardly cobbled together in a dizzying confluence of happenstance, compromise and brilliant improvisation, leaving us, in the end, with a series of founding documents that practically beg to be given a second and third look.
And we have indeed done that from time to time, but always while fighting the urge to honor precedent and the founders themselves, as if the ghosts of Washington, Madison and Hamilton will descend from heaven and collectively smite us for going against their divine wishes.
We should tempt the fates more often, for our sake and theirs. And finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment would be a damned good place to start.