An excerpt from chapter one of The Lie That Binds, a new book by NARAL President Ilyse Hogue.

 

[Jerry] Falwell’s crusade against school integration was losing favor with the general public around the same time it was activating their base. While they continued to stoke the outrage of the devoted, he and [Paul] Weyrich saw the writing on the wall. Society was accepting school integration as the norm, even as leaders struggled to effectively implement it. The movement architects needed a new focus. 

Weyrich was already casting around for new ideas. Never short on ambition, he wrote about plans to build a “new political philosophy” that would be “defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition.” He believed that, if successfully “blended and activated,” the moral majority “could well exceed our wildest dreams” and “re-create this great nation.”

He didn’t have far to look. By the early 1970s, conservative author and political activist Phyllis Schlafly was already hard at work mapping an entirely new way to stoke right-wing fear, outrage, and political activism. The Republican Party was solidly supportive of equal rights for women. Both Presidents Nixon and Ford championed the ERA and most leaders were pro-choice, but Schlafly saw an opportunity to change that. As former Republican activist Tanya Melich put it, Schlafly “unearthed the political gold of misogyny.”

Phyllis Schlafly was a longtime Republican political activist who aspired to be a leader on national security. She had spent the 1950s agitating against communism, which she believed was the primary threat to the United States. She had backed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and supported the rightward lurch in the party sparked by Goldwater’s candidacy. She found an early modicum of fame in the conservative movement for her 1964 book, “A Choice Not An Echo,” which decried GOP “kingmakers” who she blamed for undermining far-right populism and moderating the party. The self-published book sold a surprising three million copies and helped drive support for Goldwater from the right against the more socially liberal, business-friendly Nelson Rockefeller. Schlafly parlayed her book into a monthly newsletter with a wide-distribution called The Schlafly Report. Despite her reach, she hit walls in trying to position herself in the old boys’ club of politics.  

Schlafly desperately wanted to find a foothold within the Republican Party establishment. Though she was an elected delegate to every Republican National Convention from 1952 onward, she lost elections for both a congressional seat and for the role of president of the National Federation of Republican Women. As the Equal Rights Amendment was gearing up for easy passage, Schlafly’s work to establish herself and to force the party to the Right finally gained traction with a subset of male Republicans who wanted to fight the ERA. She finally won an audience on the Right when she was willing to be the face of fighting on “women’s issues.” 

The fight had felt hopeless to these right-wing male electeds. More and more women were working outside of the home. The women’s liberation movement focused on creating space for women to achieve economic independence and social parity and appeared to be succeeding in changing minds about the role women could play in society. In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment — introduced originally in 1923 — passed through Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Polls showed that three in four Americans supported the ERA. 

Schlafly understood, though, that this change was provoking undercurrents of deep discomfort in a society where dominance was organized around heterosexual marriage. The structural reforms towards gender equality gained theoretical support and even popularity. But it was a different story once those reforms manifested in places where men had forever held power — workplaces and, most acutely, in the home. 

Researcher Susan Faludi wrote that the feminist movement that grew out of the 1960s had succeeded in shifting norms. Both men and women consistently gave “lip service” to supporting women’s equality but, Faludi cautioned, “when the issues change from social justice to personal applications, the consensus crumbled.” This wasn’t just a policy difference. It was intimate, individual, and it went to the core of masculine identity. If a man could not be assured of success in the workplace due to challenges of newfound freedom for women, how could he possibly remain king of his own castle? 

Faludi pointed to social science research that suggested traditional masculine identity is deeply reliant on traditional ideas of femininity. Researchers also found that “violating sex roles” has traditionally had “more severe consequences” for men, and that men often “view even small losses of deference, advantages, or opportunities as large threats.” “Maleness in America is not absolutely defined,” anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote. “It has to be kept and reearned [sic] every day, and one essential element in the definition is beating women in every game that both sexes play.” 

The Yankelovich Monitor Survey, which spent decades tracking social attitudes, consistently found that most men held one core definition of masculinity: being a “good provider for his family.” The greatest threat to male primacy in the workplace was not actually policies promoting equity. It was expanded reproductive freedom — access to contraception and abortion and a robust cultural conversation about family planning that allowed women to take control of their own lives and created conditions for professional advancement. The pill had become legal for unmarried women in 1972, the year before Roe, and more and more women were remaining in the workplace rather than dropping out because of unintended pregnancy. 

Schlafly was consumed with containing communism and promoting the United States as a nuclear superpower, but she saw her contemporaries increasingly shaken by the cultural tumult. The milieu in which she lived was concerned that the sexual revolution of the 1960s would be “devastating” to American society. Schlafly could not ignore the growing alarm among her peers that feminism would denigrate their privileged role in society. She was a shrewd operator of politics and culture, and she seized upon the Equal Rights Amendment as the symbol of the angst. As the ERA was sent to the states for what most believed would be a speedy ratification process, Schlafly realized threats to gender norms were now an imminent reality. Suddenly — after years of being patronized and sidelined — Schlafly became sought after by right-leaning GOP leaders as a woman willing to organize women to crusade against other women. 

Schlafly knew firsthand about dignity and the loss of it when a financial downturn struck women who believed privilege was their birthright. Her father lost his job in the Great Depression and her mother had to work to support the family. She would go on to become the most notorious opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, relishing the opportunity to undermine the crown jewel of the second wave feminist movement. 

Schlafly launched “STOP ERA” in 1972. “STOP” was an acronym for the very unapologetic “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” She founded The Phyllis Schlafly Report to communicate nationwide to housewives like herself about the terrible threat the ERA posed to their way of life. The women involved were overwhelmingly white, church-going and from the rural and suburban middle and upper class. By definition, they had privileges to lose, benefitting by association with the white male Christian power structure. These women quickly embraced Schlafly’s core message that the push for equality would erase legal differences between men and women. They even bought her more tenuous message that the ERA would lead to supposed “horrors” like “homosexual marriage,” unisex bathrooms, or women in combat. Soon, she had activated a grassroots army to zealously fight to maintain their privilege at the expense of other women’s political, social and economic equity. They cast these other women — often unmarried, single moms, gay women, and women of color — as deserving of shame because of their own life choices.   

Weyrich and Falwell took note of Schlafly’s political prowess and her ability to organize new voices in the conservative coalition. They didn’t dwell on the differences between her public-facing messages about gender equality and their own, still centered on religious freedom and school segregation. They saw the harmony in their ideology and their narratives. Both factions, after all, were warning their audiences that the new buzzwords of equality — whether they were applied to Black people, gay people, or women — were tantamount to attacking your family, your way of life, and your privileged status.

The movement architects had a clear target audience for this message. They had no viable path to gain political dominance with zero support from women. Given the racist underpinnings of the movement, that meant they needed a good portion of white women. Evangelical white women were already primed, since many of them had been involved in the fight against desegregation. White women had always been critical in driving a lot of the behind-the-scenes organizing of the white supremacist movement. “A political platform of family autonomy and parental rights — a kind of white supremacist maternalism” is how Elizabeth Gillespie McRae described this grassroots movement in her book Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy.

Schlafly deftly steered these white women towards more public acceptance and folded them into the effort to fight gender parity measures. She never asked them to check their racism at the door. If anything, she told adherents who balked at the racist tendencies of their fellow warriors to swallow their displeasure for the sake of the cause. For her, these issues were two sides of the same coin. As STOP ERA and the Eagle Forum cemented themselves as the new right’s “ladies' auxiliary,” they found a sphere where they could raise their voices and flex some power without threatening the men in their lives. They used their collective weight to use women’s issues to whitewash the racist underbelly of the movement and shore up traditional power systems.  

STOP ERA was extremely brand conscious. They knew their value was in the perfect combination of fierce advocacy wrapped in unapologetic traditional femininity. They were known for baking pies and breads to hand out to lawmakers with the slogan, “From the bread makers to the breadwinners.” They shamelessly flattered male lawmakers as a core part of the lobbying strategy. There’s no way to overstate the impact of Schlafly’s work. As the Eagle Forum was getting off the ground, the ERA was sailing toward the victory line and 30 states quickly ratified of the required 38. As the Eagle Forum focused laser-like intensity on the ERA, Schlafly’s effort found its legs and progress slowed. Over the next few years, only five more states ratified. Then, four of the original 30 states rescinded their ratification. As the 1979 deadline for ratification arrived, the ERA was three states short of the requirements to become a constitutional amendment. 

Schlafly basked in the attention and credit for this stunning defeat. It paved her path to the center of power in the new Radical Right, with stalwarts like Weyrich and Falwell heralding her as an indispensable force. 

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People like Weyrich and Falwell have always drawn political benefit from stoking racial animus to sow cultural discord. This cynical exploitation never stopped, but efforts became more coded in the 1970s as the successes of the Civil Rights Movement showed quickly growing public support for at least the theory of racial equality. So, when the movement architects saw Schlafly’s accomplishments, they understood it as a ripe opportunity to add gender concerns to their efforts to defend the preservation of white patriarchal systems of control or, as they called it, “the natural family.”

Schlafly’s mastery at using identity politics provided a blueprint for the future of the new Radical Right. [Angie] Maxwell and [Todd] Shields underscored her influence in The Long Southern Strategy:

The politicization of these southern white conservative and, more often than not, religious women in opposition to Second-Wave Feminism resuscitated and kept the GOP strategy alive. The cult of southern white womanhood had primed this audience for generations; thus, the anti-feminism rallying cry became as successful as the well-known dog whistles of race and religion. It is, in fact, a bridge between the two.

Schlafly’s work was proof of concept. The Evangelicals that Weyrich and Falwell had managed to activate were sensitive to more than just a loss of white supremacy. Weyrich and Falwell were convinced that at a moment when civil rights leaders were making advances and overtly racist appeals were losing their power, they would soft-pedal their racism and persuade more Americans to fear the impact of giving freedom and power to women. Since racism and misogyny have always been tangled in American society, finding the right balance that kept just enough women on board was key to success. And that is where adapting messaging to appeal to fundamentalist religion came in.  

 

 

 

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