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Kunin: Phyllis Schlafly Remembrance

The wording was simple but the meaning was not. It read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” For Phyllis Schlafly, the ERA was a call to battle. For women like myself, the ERA seemed the last and most important step to full equality.

I first encountered Schlafly when I attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas in 1977. It was funded by Congress, and Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, and Betty Ford gave opening speeches before 2,000 delegates from every state and almost 20,000 observers. The womens’ movement appeared to be on a roll. We were confident that the Equal Rights Amendment would soon be ratified. And that the progressive platform we were cobbling together would become the law of the land.

Then one afternoon, Phyllis Schlafly marched into our convention hall with a parade of followers from her Eagle Forum convention, which was also being held in Houston. Not, I suspect a coincidence. Little did we know that the anti-ERA Eagle forum would succeed in bringing the ratification of the ERA to a halt.

Vermont had ratified the Federal amendment four years earlier, in 1973. As a new legislator I’d been thrilled to stand up on the floor of the House and give my maiden speech in favor of the ERA. In fact, ratification of the ERA had been the main reason I had run for office. We were deeply disappointed when the ratification movement failed. We had 35 ratified states; we needed 38.
The next step was to encourage states to pass their own ERA’s.

In 1986 I won my re-election campaign, but the state ERA lost. Fifty-three percent voted against, forty-seven voted for. Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign had infiltrated Vermont. Horror stories abounded; bathrooms would have to be unisex, abortion would be legal, boy scouts would have to admit girl scouts, women would be drafted, and even the word “sex” became toxic

Today, I can’t help but wonder what Schlafly thought as the country moved toward greater equality anyway – without benefit of the ERA. And I wonder what the amendment might have achieved. Perhaps it would have given women a constitutional anchor in issues of equality – like the demand for equal pay.

Yes, Phyllis, you were a brave and determined leader - and I admire your tenacity. I only wish we could have been on the same side.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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