This is salient as we contemplate resuscitation of the Equal Rights Amendment. Last winter, the Virginia House of Delegates defeated ratification by one vote. Last week, Democrats won the majority, and chances are high that the amendment will now pass. If Congress and the Supreme Court decide that the original 1982 missed deadline for ratification is not an impediment (a massive if), “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the basis of sex” may enter the Constitution.
This could polarize the nation further. But it also has the potential to unify — if Americans pay attention to history — our best tool for strengthening common identity.
Feminism dates to 1776, when the rights of the “common man” exploded. This detonated calls for women’s rights. Even before the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams asked her husband to ensure that new laws gave women greater rights, as “all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Married women then possessed no legal claim to their children, no defense against physical chastisement, no authority to sign contracts, no voice in government. Colonial law gave a husband the right to hire his spouse out as a servant and “restrain a wife of her liberty,” in the words of jurist William Blackstone.
Like George III, John Adams believed his loving Abigail couldn’t possibly think him a tyrant, and she didn’t, but as the wife of a lawyer, she apparently realized it was best to have the courts on one’s side.
John didn’t heed Abigail, yet change followed anyway as the idea spread that girls’ brains were robust enough to withstand an education — and democracy required knowledgeable citizens. Schools for girls proliferated. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was their champion.
The 19th century saw further reforms. Lobbying by feminists, male and female, yielded women the right to own property, keep their wages, divorce abusive husbands and share custody of their children. One of the last rights to materialize was the franchise, on which Republicans took greater leadership than Democrats. When Susan B. Anthony voted illegally in 1872, she gleefully wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Well I have gone & done it!!—positively voted the Republican ticket.”
Republicans introduced suffrage amendments in Congress from 1876 onward. Their victory in the 1918 midterm elections nudged the 19th Amendment across the finish line. In 1923, Republicans introduced today’s Equal Rights Amendment as a joint resolution of the House and the Senate.
For a hundred years, Republican women like my student provided the bulwark of support for equal rights, though the effort became increasingly bipartisan. Democratic President John F. Kennedy collaborated with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the Equal Pay Act in 1963, introduced 20 years earlier by Republican congresswoman Winifred Stanley. A majority on the Supreme Court — including justices appointed by presidents of both parties — struck down laws against birth control in 1965. President Richard Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, opening the way for women’s sports at universities across the country.
In 1974, Democratic congresswoman Bella Abzug sponsored the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited banks from asking female credit card applicants whether they intended to quit their jobs to have babies. Republican President Gerald Ford put his pen to the legislation. Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) championed retroactive veterans’ benefits for the female veterans of World War I and II. Democratic President Jimmy Carter signed Goldwater’s bill into law.
So how did equal rights for women morph from a unifying issue into a polarizing one?
It began as a rivalry within the Republican Party during the 1970s. The party’s leadership, including Nixon and Ford, and first ladies Pat Nixon and Betty Ford, supported the ERA, which passed Congress in 1972 after decades of bipartisan effort. But dissent emerged on the party fringe. Activist Phyllis Schlafly started a campaign to persuade Americans that feminism hurt families and undermined femininity.
Schlafly battled the Betty Ford-led effort to achieve ratification, which initially seemed inevitable as 30 of the required 38 states approved the amendment within the first year. Schlafly proved particularly effective in the South. Female support for the ERA below the Mason-Dixon Line dropped from 64 percent in 1976 to 42 percent in 1980. Opposition soared from 16 to 44 percent.
Sensing this shift, Republicans dropped the ERA from their platform despite being the amendment’s original proponents. Schlafly lectured followers, “No self-respecting conservative should even try to identify with feminism.”
Since then, polemicists on both sides of the political spectrum have ignored America’s history of consensus to push their parties further to the right or left and discredit moderates to score points.
In a 2011 book, Schlafly (writing with Suzanne Venker) stated that “the entire women’s movement was predicated on a Marxist view of the world” and has “nothing in common” with the campaign for female suffrage. This is inaccurate. Abigail Adams never met Karl Marx. Republican Daniel Anthony, nephew of Susan B. Anthony, introduced the ERA.
Left-wing purists have become increasingly rigid, too, insisting that followers be all in or all out. In 2017, organizers of the Women’s March said people who didn’t support abortion rights had no place in their parade. This excluded the one-fifth of Americans who have opposed the procedure under any circumstances since 1975, even if they supported other aspects of feminism.
Ideologues at either extreme want a fight. Both deny the middle its rich and inalienable tradition of an expanding commitment to equality.
This was ancient history to my anxious student. I pointed to her pink tennis shoes. “Your answer’s there, in your feminist shoes.” Her eyebrows lifted.
I observed she had chosen footwear that allow her to run and climb as high as she wants — at home or in a profession — and that express her ideal of female beauty. Pink tennis shoes reflect the nation’s noblest beliefs, which she hopes to conserve.
Partisans exaggerate our differences, but the rest of us needn’t. The nation’s balance point is in the center, where feminism began.