The band played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the nation's Stop ERA forces, slowly descended the stairs of the Shoreham Hotel's Ambassador Room, waving and beaming, radiant in white butterfly sleeves and a long strand of pearls. She grabbed a cluster of balloons, her eyes glistening with tears, then walked into a halo of television lights. "Praise the Lord," said a fan.
The reporters pounced. Did Schlafly think, one of them asked, that this party for yesterday's death of the Equal Rights Amendment would be seen as the celebration of an ungracious winner?
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," she said, still smiling. "Look. They've got all the media on their side. Why should they object when we want to have some fun?"
And they did. Ronald Reagan sent a congratulatory telegram. The band played "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead." Conservative Digest editor John Lofton, who wore dark glasses and a striped party hat, put it this way: "We're here to celebrate a death, to dance on a grave."
After a 10-year fight that stopped three states short of victory for the amendment, nobody at this celebration seemed worried about the future. Asked about plans of ERA supporters to begin the whole process again on July 14, Schlafly said, "I'm going to laugh at them. The ERA's been dead for three years."
Last night, more than 1,000 members of Stop ERA and Eagle Forum, Schlafly's "Pro Family" umbrella organization, celebrated conservative womanhood at an "Over the Rainbow" gala. They ate steak, took pictures of each other and listened to songs like "I Enjoy Being a Girl." It was a festival that ended a furious day of press conferences and retorts from both sides of the issue. Schlafly, not taking any chances, had private security guards with metal detectors at the door of her party; Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, called it a "publicity stunt."
Right after dinner, the speechifying started. Except for Schlafly, who took more than 15, everyone got two minutes. Some selections:
From Richard Viguerie, direct mail expert: "We've just witnessed a classic confrontation between the power elite and the people--and the people have won."
From M. Stanton Evans, the conservative columnist: "When you hear the phrase 'Gross National Product'--that is not a reference to Bella Abzug." The place howled. Evans smiled, then added: "Or Tip O'Neill."
From Lofton: "I congratulate you for doing to the ERA what Menachem Begin is doing to the PLO."
From Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.): "We have overcome one of the most powerful propaganda campaigns in the history of politics."
The evening began with a cocktail reception, where the predominantly middle-aged crowd of women in silks and chiffons caught their heels in streamers from the balloons on the ceilings. It ended, 5 1/2 hours and more than 30 speeches later, with an emotional message from Schlafly. She called for a "mighty movement" that will "set America on the right path" and also said that ERA supporters are "victims of their own ideology" who "believe they're second-class citizens." She catalogued the tactics of her opponents--a hunger strike, pickets, symbolic chains--and then said that feminist Sonia Johnson had written in her book: 'If I could have got hold of God, I would have killed him.' "
"AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!" said the crowd.
A sizable representative slice of conservative male America turned out for the evening, among them Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), who was the evening's master of ceremonies, Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell and George Gilder, the conservative economist and author of the bible of the Reagan administration, "Wealth and Poverty."
Gilder was honored by the Eagle Forum for "his unique eloquence, good sense and good humor in defending the American family and for his courageous manliness in enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous feminists." The accolade stems from an incident in 1973 when Gilder, appearing on "The Dick Cavett Show," says he was stormed on the stage by feminists carrying a coffin which contained, he says they told him, the ashes of all the women murdered by male chauvinists. Gilder, who also said he was once NOW's "Pig of the Year," said the feminists "blamed me for everything from Auschwitz to the Salem witch trials."
There were more songs, too. One of them, adopted from the musical "Kiss Me Kate," included lyrics that referred to Smeal.
"Where are you Ellie?" went one verse.
"I'm sorry to tell you that your arguments were smelly."
"Where are you Gloria?"
"Still pedaling your life style to housewives in Peoria?"
Then a soprano sang, from the back of the room, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Schlafly's eyes glistened.