This week, the Virginia General Assembly passed the long-stymied Equal Rights Amendment, making the state the 38th to do so — and the last required to ratify it nationwide. The essence of the amendment is summed up by its first section: “Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Whether Virginia's vote will actually make the amendment part of the Constitution is up for debate. The Justice Department says no, saying the deadline for ratification has long passed; advocates and other legal experts say yes, asserting the deadline was never valid to begin with.
They wouldn’t be having this debate, though, if it weren’t for two Illinoisans: Phyllis Schlafly and George Ryan. More than anyone else, they ensured that the ERA’s supporters failed in their first attempt at ratification back in the 1970s and ’80s.
When it was passed by Congress in 1972, the ERA looked like a sure thing. The ERA sailed through the House of Representatives (354–24) and the Senate (84–8). President Nixon endorsed it. At the end of 1973, it had been ratified by 30 state legislatures, only eight short of the three-quarters needed to add it to the Constitution.
By then, though, Phyllis Schlafly was involved. The Alton attorney was known in conservative circles for the Phyllis Schlafly Report, a monthly newsletter that was more concerned with defeating communism than advancing feminism. She had twice run for Congress, unsuccessfully, and in 1964 penned A Choice, Not an Echo, a book on American conservatism that helped buoy Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign that year. By the end of the decade, she would be a household name and leader in the conservative movement that culminated in Ronald Reagan's presidency.
According to Donald T. Critchlow's book Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade, “[t]he national campaign against the ERA began on July 7, 1972, when Schlafly called a small meeting of Illinois supporters to a one-day meeting at the O’Hare Airport Inn.” The meeting resulted in the formation of a nationwide group, STOP ERA (STOP being an acronym for "Stop Taking Our Privileges"). Its argument: If the amendment passed, women could be sent into combat and robbed of alimony in divorce cases, and schools could be required to provide co-ed locker rooms, sports teams, and bathrooms. The organization’s greatest appeal was among evangelical Protestant women in the South and Midwest, presaging the religious right's increasing political involvement as the decade wore on.
When the ERA first came up for ratification in Illinois in 1972, Schlafly worked hard to defeat it. She was aided, at least initially, by a quirk in the new state constitution, which required a three-fifths majority for the passage of constitutional amendments. Over the next decade, ;both the Illinois House and Senate repeatedly voted in favor of the ERA with simple majority votes, but the chambers never cracked the 60 percent needed to pass it in the same session. The federal deadline for ratification came and went in 1982.
Schlafly not only testified against the ERA — she and her allies courted legislators with baked goods and roses. “We were nicer to the legislators,” Schlafly said in an oral history with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. “We smiled at them and sent them valentines, [but] the feminists were saying nasty things about them. Every year, we had our homemade bread day and we brought a loaf of homemade bread to every legislator, to show that we represented the homemakers of Illinois and that the other side was attacking us. We knew the feminists weren’t capable of making homemade bread, so we had a corner on that tactic.”
Schlafly is considered personally responsible for defeating the ERA nationwide. She certainly took credit for defeating it in Illinois, which otherwise would have been expected to ratify the amendment. (Illinois is the only blue state that failed to approve the ERA in the 1970s.)
“It may be because I lived in Illinois and I was on quite a number of TV shows,” Schlafly said in the same interview. “I was on Donahue several times, but I was on a lot of the other ones: Mike Douglas, and some of the others… [T]he majority in Illinois were against ERA, no doubt because we had more activity over more years in Illinois than any other state. In Illinois, … where it was voted on every year for ten years, people knew what it was all about.”
Originally, the ERA was given a seven-year window for ratification. When it failed to attract the support of 38 states during that time, the deadline was extended three years, to June 30, 1982. That spring and summer, Illinois became the focus of the battle to pass the ERA, said Dawn Clark Netsch, who was then a state senator representing the North Side of Chicago.
“We were the state,” Netsch recalled, in her own oral history. “The assumption was that if we finally broke loose and ratified in Illinois, that we could then pick up two more states. I think Florida was one of them. We were just such a barrier, a high fence, it was almost as if we could scale the fence here in Illinois, then others would be able to follow enough to get it ratified. So no question, we were the key to it.”
Demonstrators descended on Springfield from all over the nation. Seven ERA supporters went on a 37-day hunger strike. Feminist activists calling themselves the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens chained themselves to the railing outside the Senate chamber. President Jimmy Carter, former First Lady Betty Ford, and Chicago mayor Jane Byrne phoned legislators, asking them to vote for the ERA.
The final vote took place on June 25, 1982. In the House, it was 103–72 in favor, in the Senate, 31–27 — in both cases, short of a three-fifth majority. Outraged protestors attempted to storm the Senate floor. When they were repelled, they spattered the doors with pig blood, then used the remaining blood to write the names of Gov. James Thompson and House Speaker George Ryan on the floor of the rotunda. Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, singled out Ryan for refusing to allow the House to vote on changing the three-fifths requirement to a simple majority.
“George Ryan is not a symbol; he’s a reality,” Smeal said after the vote, “and the reality is that the Republican Party is cheating women’s equality.”
Stamping out the ERA didn’t hurt Ryan’s career. That fall, he was elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with Thompson. (When he served as governor himself, he was, ironically, a social liberal. He famously placed a moratorium on the death penalty and defended both gay rights and abortion rights.)
In the aftermath of the defeat, Netsch gave STOP ERA credit for outhustling the ERA’s supporters: “The opposition was better organized. Instead of marches and spilling blood on the floors of the Illinois state capitol, they had gotten out into the hustings much more than the pro-ERA case ever did. They were out doing a lot of grassroots work.” She did not, however, have much regard for Schlafly as a person, calling her a “phony” who traveled the country arguing that women belonged at home.
“She was the one who was a career person, making a career out of all this, and, I assumed, frequently away from her kids,” Netsch said.
Schlafly died in 2016. Two years later, the ERA came back to life in Illinois. It finally passed the General Assembly, 72–45, making Illinois the 37th state to ratify the amendment. This time around, the amendment had the support of numerous Republicans but was opposed by some African American democrats who wanted to see similar legal protections for other marginalized identities, including women of color and young black men.
Now that Virginia has become the 38th state to back the amendment, the question is, will the vote matter? The case could end up in the Supreme Court, making a resolution of any kind far off. Blame Illinois, and our three-fifths rule, for the fact that we’re still talking about the ERA 38 years later.