Those of us who can remember the argument over the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment are "getting along" now, as they say about life span. But we must nevertheless be legion, and as we listen to the argument about the Equal Rights Amendment we have a feeling of deja vu.
For we remember that in 1929 and 1930, the proposed repeal of Prohibition had seemed very simple, as unsusceptible to hidden meaning as equal rights for women: "Should the 18th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States be repealed?"
But by 1931 the question was not simple at all. It had become enormously complicated and divisive and vexing.
By that year, our mothers and fathers, if they were in favor of repeal, were fending off accusations of loose morality, disregard for children, disrespect for dead soldiers and being in the pay of gangsters. I remember a woman saying to my mother, "I didn't know that you were a supporter of Al Capone."
I was standing in the parlor of the First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa, at the time, and I remember looking up at my mother's face when the woman said that to her and feeling her sense of frustration and outrage. Mother was a "wet," and in 1931, "wet" had become un-nice people, at least in Protestant churches.
I suppose that if the year had been 1977 and my mother had been in favor of ERA, which she most certainly would have been, someone who had been listening to phyllis Schlafly might have suggested that she was a lesbian. In 1931, I don't think the word "lesbian" would have been used in a church parlor. But being a "supporter of Al Capone" was certainly considered its moral equivalent.
Anyhow, the woman who reprimanded her with "Al Capone" had been listening to 1931's equivalent of Phyllis Schlafly. He was the Rev. Wayne B. Wheeler, president of the Anti-Saloon League of America.
Wheeler was a tall man, as I remember him, with an enormous shock of white hair and a florid face that grew even more florid as he pointed at people in his audiences. One time when I was among his listeners, he pointed to Mr. Peabody, the organist of the First Baptist Church, and he said, "Woncha give up rum?" And I said to my mother afterward. "Does Mr. Peabody drink a lot of rum?" And Mother said, "No, it's just that Rev. Wheeler wants him to."
I puzzled about this for a long while, and it was only later that I understood that what Mother meant was that Wheeler wanted so much to accost the devil that he had become a trifle careless about identifying him.
Wheeler crisscrossed the country in those days much as Schlafly does now, calling on people in the name of "the unborn babies stretching out their heavenly arms" and "in the name of the soldiers who died for righteousness and who are looking down upon us now beseeching us not to turn from the path of righteousness."
The history books record that Wheeler lost his battle very quickly. The Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth, was proposed by the Congress in February 1933 and adopted by a sufficient number of states in December of that same year.
But that record is somewhat deceptive. In fact, the battle had taken at least six years. It had been six years since Al Smith had come out - just as the First Congregational Church in Dubuque might have expected a Catholic to do - in favor of "the liquor and the gangland interests."
So ERA proponents can take heart. If history is a guide, it will take about six years for people to realize that Schlafly, like Wheeler, is not really talking to the subject, and they will ask themselves a simple question: "Should women have equal rights?" After which the amendment will pass.