A New Schlafly

Originally published in the April 28, 2019, New York Times Sunday Review.

Forty years ago, Phyllis Schlafly hosted a gala for 1,100 guests at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington to celebrate the expiration of the deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. A bomb threat was not enough to dampen the evening’s festivities, which included not only dinner and speeches but a musical revue featuring parodies of “The Impossible Dream” and “Old-Fashioned Girl” with lyrics adapted for the occasion by Schlafly herself. The celebration did not just mark the end of the E.R.A., Schlafly later said, but “the end of an era, the era of conservative defeats.”

Not in women’s rights, it didn’t. In the 40 years since that banquet, nearly everything that Schlafly warned that E.R.A. would bring about has been achieved by other means, from coeducation at military academies to gay marriage.

Schlafly and her organization Stop E.R.A. won the battle but lost the war. Hardly surprising when you consider that they were the underdogs. Politicians in both parties initially assumed that voting for the amendment was the safe option because its supporters were passionate and organized, whereas its opponents were politically inert — which they were, until Schlafly, who had run for Congress and worked as a researcher for what would become the American Enterprise Institute, turned masses of women who had never been involved in politics into an army of effective lobbyists.

Today there are many times more women in the conservative movement than there were when a 21-year-old named Phyllis Stewart first arrived in Washington in 1945. And yet none of those brilliant and articulate women have stepped in to fill her role as America’s foremost anti-feminist.

Those who attack feminist orthodoxy today do so because they are committed feminists themselves, as in the case of the A.E.I.’s Christina Hoff Sommers, who calls her position “equity feminism” as opposed to “victim feminism.” Dissenters from the feminist line are more likely to be motivated by a libertarian commitment to equal treatment of the sexes than a socially conservative commitment to gender roles as an affirmative good. Four decades after the death of the E.R.A., Schlafly has many descendants, but no heirs.