This week, the Illinois state legislature approved the Equal Rights Amendment–36 years too late. The entirely symbolic vote to approve the amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women’s rights came decades after the deadline to do so had passed.
But the vote was also a reminder that the rise of the religious right–the core of President Trump’s support–depended on attacking feminism and LGBTQ rights as twin evils. That’s a problem that the decades have not erased.
The ERA had a history dating back to the 1920s, but it really took off in the early 1970s. Congress passed the measure sending it to the states for ratification. Then the right wing mobilized.
Phyllis Schlafly, head of the right wing Concerned Women for America, mounted a campaign against the amendment, which simply guaranteed equal status for women in employment, property and divorce, on the grounds that it upset traditional gender roles.
Opponents warned that women would be drafted, alimony would be lost and women wouldn’t be favored in custody cases.
But Schlafly and her cohorts also trafficked heavily in homophobia to make their point. Schlafly said that the ERA was an attempt by “lesbians, radicals and federal employees” to create a“constitutional cure for their laziness and personal problems.”
She claimed that the ERA would lead to “homosexual privileges.”
Schlafly even presaged the marriage equality movement in her battle against the ERA. “They want to give the homosexuals and the lesbians the same dignity as husbands and wives,” she said on Jerry Falwell’s radio show in 1980.
Schlafly ultimately succeeded in defeating the ERA, stopping it just three states short of passage. Her appeal to working class women that they would lose their protections at the expense of a well-educated elite was a precursor of President Trump’s faux populism. (She endorsed Trump.)
Her insistence that men’s rights were being violated because of feminism still lives on today in an intellectually more gussied up version by Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, to say nothing of the incel movement.
In fact, one of Schlafly’s key scare tactics is still in full force today, completely unchanged by the intervening decades. She warned that the ERA would lead to “public unisex bathrooms,” the very fear that the religious right continues to use in opposing transgender rights.
Schlafly’s campaign against the ERA became one of the key organizing forces for the nascent political religious right. Until then, conservative evangelicals had largely steered clear of politics for decades, but Schlafly brought them and conservative Catholics (like herself) to build a coalition that has been wiedling its influence on the Republican party ever since the rise of Reagan.
It’s no surprise that after the defeat of the ERA, Schlafly continued her crusade against feminism and LGBTQ rights. For the religious right, both upend traditional gender roles and upset the social order.
The passage of the ERA by the legislature will have little effect. At this point, state law has been changed so much that a Costitutional amendment would have only a modest legal impact.
But its passage would make a statement about the status of women in society. It would be a final rejection to the canards that the religious right has relied upon for decades. Unfortunately, given how powerful the religious right has become, that’s unlikely to happen for a long time.