Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fighting the bad fight

In this video, Rachel Maddow looks at the tortured history of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and how the silly arguments of three decades ago stack up now. For such a simple amendment, the ERA was one of the most fiercely resisted, successfully, as it turned out. Section one said:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
That’s it: Twenty-four words that set off the original Culture Wars as the right launched a fierce counterattack that helped lay the groundwork, ultimately, for the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980. A version was originally proposed in the 1920s, but it didn’t pass both houses of Congress until 1972.

One of the leading warriors against the ERA, who is prominent in this video, was Phyllis Schlafly who, sadly, was from my home state of Illinois. I met her once, in 1979 at the Illinois Republican Presidential Forum. I thought she was annoying before then and my opinion of her only got worse from there.

She flowed into the room where the forum was being held like royalty, entourage in tow, and wearing June Cleaver-type housedress and a huge red stop sign-shaped badge demanding “Stop ERA!” in type larger than any eye chart I’ve seen. She put on her best fake smile and handed out her propaganda to attendees who, like me, were early. I don’t remember her staying to actually watch the forum.

Schlafly is a wingnut from way back. She was known for her support of 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (her self-published book in support of him, A Choice, Not an Echo, was in my university library), but in 1960 she organised a revolt of self-described “moral conservatives” against Richard Nixon for his being against segregation and discrimination.

But it was opposition to ERA for which she is best known. Her smears and defamation were legendary: She said ERA would lead to unisex public toilets, rights for gay people and “homosexual marriage”. Her antics were often achingly silly, enough so to induce eye rolling among sensible people, but they worked. I remember that one of the times the Illinois Legislature was considering the measure, she and her female minions brought freshly home-baked goods to give to legislators to remind them, she said, of what they’d be giving up if they ratified the ERA (reports at the time said even pro-ERA legislators lined up for the goodies; had I been there, I would’ve declined, thinking of the apple in "Snow White"…)

So Phyllis was a hard-line “social conservative”, as anti-gay as she was anti-woman (I remember her making anti-gay jokes as part of her anti-ERA patter). Her anti-gay positions never softened. In 2009, for example, she said in opposition to same sex marriage and civil unions that they were "[a]ttacks on the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman come from the gay lobby seeking social recognition of their lifestyle." What's with wingnuts thinking the issue is about “recognition” of any lifestyle? And for that matter, whose lifestyle in particular? No two gay people I know have the same lifestyle, after all. But that’s a topic for another day.

The first irony in this that in 1972, when the ERA was first passed by Congress, I was mostly indifferent (mind you, I was 13 at the time…). By the time ratification finally failed in 1982, I was an ardent supporter. Phyllis helped push me in that direction—and out of the Republican Party—so I suppose in a twisted way I owe her thanks.

But the biggest irony is about the states: 21 US states have a version of the ERA in their state constitutions (16 of them ratified ERA, 5 didn’t). NONE of them have mandated “unisex public toilets” because of it. Six of the states that ratified ERA now have marriage equality—without the ERA ever being ratified. So, Phyllis was demonstrably wrong about the “consequences” of the ERA. I’d say she was—and is—wrong about everything. But she and her fellow extremist wingnuts are still in the way.

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