Those of us who recall the feminist glow in the country when the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution won federal approval are finding our memories rekindled by the nine-part FX on Hulu series “Mrs. America.”
The show has prompted me to remember things that my daughters would find unthinkable, such as a woman’s inability to open a bank account or a credit card without a husband’s co-signature. During my childhood, it was unremarkable that the theme song for the comedy show “Green Acres” included the following exchange:
Husband: “You are my wife …”
Wife: “Goodbye, city life!”
In an acceptable premise for a 1960s sitcom, glamorous Eva Gabor was expected to give up New York City and live on a farm because her husband demanded obedience.
I was a novice feminist in my freshman year of high school in 1972 when the Equal Rights Amendment passed. The text was simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Ratification by three-quarters of the states seemed like a no-brainer. Women were being heard! We were never going backward! Except that some women did not agree.
Enter Phyllis Schlafly, one of the women depicted in “Mrs. America,” a master at weaponizing the housewife’s worry over losing the privileged life afforded her by her husband’s largesse. Schlafly fed the fear of prospects like daughters being drafted into the infantry or the loss of alimony. She also fortified her anti-ERA campaign by hooking up with the anti-abortion movement in the wake of the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Schlafly, as political an animal as ever was, was an effective operative. She once spoke on my college campus. I didn’t go.
“Mrs. America” also portrays, with light fictionalization, the work of feminist trailblazers like Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm and Gloria Steinem. Republican women like Jill Ruckelshaus are featured as well: Early on, the ERA was championed by members of both major political parties. With the rise of conservatism in U.S. politics, the states’ ratifications that once seemed certain stalled. The deadline to ratify the ERA elapsed without the required 38 states.
Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies. I remember a full-on fight at a family baby shower years ago, when the mothers who worked outside the home and the mothers who stayed home to raise their children argued about whose life choice was harder or more noble. As a mom who worked part time, I could see both points. I also saw that each of the women on both sides harbored unspoken guilt. Not one of my female relatives felt entirely comfortable with the choices she’d made or felt she’d had to make. I thought at the time that this small baby-shower-impasse capsuled the historical tension threaded through the greater women’s movement: Rather than honoring each other’s choices, we were threatened by each other’s choices. We reacted defensively and then lashed out at the other.
Still today, no matter our inner turmoil, we women would all benefit from the Equal Rights Amendment. The good news is that the ERA is not dead: In a move that some saw as futile and some saw as forward progress, Virginia came on board this past January as No. 38, the final needed state to ratify the ERA. In February, just as the world was turning upside down in a pandemic, the House of Representatives voted 232-182 for House Joint Resolution 79, which removes the deadline for states to ratify the ERA. Local note: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, predictably voted "nay." Also unsurprisingly, the U.S. Senate has yet to take up the resolution.
In this time of trouble and upheaval, gender equality may seem trivial, a frivolous concern, especially when compared to systemic racism and police brutality. But as we work for justice in our country, let’s remember the still-relevant words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The fact that the U.S. Constitution does not yet prohibit sex discrimination is an injustice that is not only fixable, but whose remedy is long overdue. The Equal Rights Amendment, when fully ratified, will be the 28th Amendment. Upon its adoption, our foremothers will rest easy, and our daughters will gain legal equality. That small step for all Americans will be a giant leap for womankind.