Friday, March 29, 2024

Random Phone Call defeated the ERA

Article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Opinion: How a random phone call defeated the Equal Rights Amendment

Mark R. Rank

ometimes history is shaped by monumental forces. Sometimes history is shaped by chance and luck. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly played a pivotal role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. But as I explain in my forthcoming book, “The Random Factor,” Schlafly’s involvement almost didn’t happen.

Congress first debated the ERA in 1923. It was then introduced into every Congressional session until 1970, but routinely failed to reach a floor vote.

That changed in 1972, when the amendment was finally approved by the House and Senate and sent to the states for ratification. It stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Schlafly believed passage of the ERA would cost women certain traditional privileges. But by the time she fully engaged in the fight, the amendment had been ratified by 30 states, needing only eight more to become law.

Schlafly’s opposition proved decisive. Her ability to raise concerns and fears, and to get those concerns heard in a wider context, was widely seen as the key component in turning the tide against the amendment, which eventually fell three states short of final ratification.

As political scientist Jane Mansbridge wrote, “Many people who followed the struggle over the ERA believed — rightly in my view — that the Amendment would have been ratified by 1975 or 1976 had it not been for Phyllis Schlafly’s early and effective effort to organize political opponents.”

When I interviewed Schlafly in St. Louis in 2011, she was 86. We talked about a wide range of issues, but most surprising was the fact that her involvement with the ERA was the result of a completely chance event. It was a twist of fate that would change the direction of the country.

One day in November 1971, a friend of Schlafly’s in Connecticut called from out of the blue. Would Phyllis be interested in speaking at the local public library? Schlafly said she’d consider it, and suggested that she could address the strategic balance of arms between the United States and Russia — a long-standing area of interest.

“No, no,” the friend said. “I don’t want to hear about that. We want to hear about the Equal Rights Amendment.”

“I haven’t looked at it,” Schlafly replied, “and I don’t know whether I’m for it or against it.”

“I’ll send you a packet of material,” the friend responded, “and I know which side you will be on.”

The friend sent the materials. Schlafly spoke at the library, which in turn jump-started her efforts to spearhead the opposition to the ERA.

But what might have happened if Schlafly hadn’t received that phone call?

I asked her just that. She said that in all likelihood she would have continued writing and speaking about the strategic balance of arms and would not have gotten involved with the ERA — or if she had, it would have been too late to prevent its ratification.

Could someone else have played a similar role in halting the ERA? Possibly. Would that person have been as effective as Phyllis Schlafly? Unlikely.

What we do know is that Schlafly played a key role in bending history. Had that Connecticut friend not phoned when she did, our nation and politics might look very different. They certainly would look different with respect to the ERA, which would have become the 27th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

(The actual 27th amendment, ratified in 1992, requires that any salary changes for members of Congress don’t take effect until after the next House election. No amendment has been ratified since.)

It is not an exaggeration to view the defeat of the ERA as an initial step in the country’s move toward a more conservative direction that has continued over the last 50 years, and that a random telephone call set in motion that movement.

Fittingly, one of Phyllis Schlafly’s last public appearances was in support of Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency in 2016. At a rally in St. Louis on March 11, 2016, the 91-year old Schlafly gave her ringing support.

A single telephone call from 45 years prior was in all likelihood the reason that Schlafly was asked to give her final conservative endorsement and share the stage with the future president of the United States. In fact, that telephone call may have indirectly helped pave the way for the rise of Donald Trump.

The contours of American society are shaped by many forces. But never underestimate the role of chance. In the end, history was changed not by a monumental action or event, but by a purely chance occurrence that has continued to ripple throughout the social and political contours of American society.

Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World around Us.”

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