Back To CourseThe Constitution Study Guide
4 chapters | 46 lessons
Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Women's rights are a big topic in American history. A lot of time, we tend to view the history of women's rights as an issue of women versus men, embattled feminists fighting the patriarchy. We don't always acknowledge the fact that women's rights meant different things to different women. This can make for some interesting history. One of the most complex figures in modern women's rights issues is Phyllis Schlafly, lawyer, political activist, and national advocate for the rights of American housewives.
Phyllis Schlafly was born in Missouri in 1924. Her father was a lawyer, her mother was a librarian and schoolteacher, and Phyllis also showed an aptitude for her education. She received a bachelor's degree from Washington University in 1944, a master's in political science from Harvard in 1945, and a J.D. from the Washington University Law School in St. Louis in 1978.
While she was advancing her education, Schlafly started working her way into political and activist circles, becoming a national voice for female conservatives. Her first major rise to prominence came in 1964, when Schlafly self-published a book called A Choice Not An Echo. This book described a trend within the Republican Party in which certain members of the party essentially controlled presidential nominations. Schlafly wanted to challenge this group, advocating through her book the nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate for the 1964 election. Goldwater did end up as the Republican candidate, and though he lost, Schlafly was catapulted to national fame as an icon of conservative values. A Choice Not An Echo was one of 20 books she would write on topics ranging from family values to phonics.
As a major advocate for conservative political values, Schlafly started tackling national issues. In 1972, she founded a volunteer grassroots organization called the Eagle Forum. The Eagle Forum focuses on issues of public policy and has maintained an active presence in Washington DC, as well as other major cities, for over forty years. She later published a monthly conservative newsletter called the Schlafly Report and hosted a radio talk show on education called the 'Eagle Forum Live'. Schlafly was awarded the Women of Achievement Award in 1963, was listed as one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century by the Ladies' Home Journal, and has appeared before more than 50 Congressional and State legislatures.
Of all of Schlafly's political battles, perhaps none is as well recognized as her fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA was first proposed back in 1923 to guarantee equal rights for women. It was passed by both the House and Senate in 1972, and given a ratification deadline of 1979. Now, off the bat this amendment sounds like a great idea. Equal rights for women -- who could be against that? Actually, a number of people were, including Phyllis Schlafly. While the middle class was largely supportive of the ERA, many working class women argued that the amendment would restrict policies on working conditions and hours that benefited women.
Schlafly was more interested in the rights of American housewives, and this is where her opposition to the ERA came in. Schlafly started a movement called Stop Taking Our Privileges, or STOP, which mobilized support against ratification of the amendment. According to Schlafly, the ERA would remove privileges that American housewives relied on, such as the Dependent Wife benefits of Social Security. Furthermore, the ERA could make women subject to conscription in wartime, threaten the practices of alimony that sustained divorcees, and endanger the financial security of widows. STOP emerged as the national leader opposing the ERA, defined by its conservative ideologies that framed the issue largely in terms of maintaining traditional family values.
In 1972, the ERA was predicted to quickly reach ratification. However, Schlafly's sudden mobilization of conservative women turned out to be surprisingly successful. The ERA was defeated, even after Congress extended the ratification deadline to 1982. To this day, the Equal Rights Amendment has not been added to the United States Constitution.
This history has made Phyllis Schlafly a complex figure. On one hand, she's seen as blocking important women's rights legislation. On the other, she emerges as a powerful female leader who took control in a male-dominated political world and helped secure a political voice for an underrepresented segment of American society. All of this reminds us that the women's rights movement was never a simple matter of men versus women. Interpretations of what equality means to American women has been as diverse as these women themselves.
Phyllis Schlafly (1924- ) is an American lawyer and political activist aligned with the conservative political ideology. Schlafly first emerged as a major player on the conservative scene after her 1964 best-selling book A Choice Not An Echo identified problems in the Republic process of presidential nominations. She later founded a grassroots political activist group called the Eagle Forum to advocate for conservative issues. Her most famous political battle was against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights for women. Schlafly led the conservative coalition which felt that the amendment would take away the privileges and security of American housewives, as well as widows. Schlafly was instrumental in the defeat of the ERA, which makes her a complex historical figure. So, while women's rights have been an important debate in American history, it's also important that we don't treat all women throughout history as the same. What some saw as rights, others saw as a threat, and that's the point Phyllis Schlafly brought to America's attention.
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Back To CourseThe Constitution Study Guide
4 chapters | 46 lessons