What happened? How did an effort born in bipartisanship end in polarizing defeat? Clearly, the ERA prompted a profound debate about the place of women not only in the workforce but in the home, the family, and society itself, in the course of which the amendment became entangled with the rise of the religious right that helped to bring about Reagan’s electoral sweep. Was the ERA the cause of polarization or its victim? Or did it turn out to be something else: a catalyst for positive change in legislative and judicial attitudes? It was while the ERA was pending that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger took the first steps toward expanding the understanding of equal protection to include equality of the sexes, tentatively at first but eventually bringing us to where we are today: living under what some students of social movements, like Reva B. Siegel of Yale Law School, call the de facto ERA.1
Jane J. Mansbridge’s Why We Lost the ERA (1986), written in the immediate aftermath of the events it describes by a political scientist who was part of the pro-ERA effort, argues that “much of the support for the Amendment was superficial, because it was based on a support for abstract rights, not for real changes.” Mansbridge’s account holds up surprisingly well. She contrasts a painfully factionalized pro-ERA campaign, riven by debates over what priority to attach to abortion and gay rights, with the rigidly organized and spectacularly successful STOP ERA movement (STOP was an acronym for “stop taking our privileges”) led by Phyllis Schlafly, who persuaded her followers—largely conservative and religious women—that their very way of life was at stake.
Of course, that way of life was disappearing rapidly—as a result not of feminism but of household necessity during the economically stagnant 1970s. As the traditional family structure, with the male breadwinner at its head, became an unaffordable luxury, women entered the paid workforce in great numbers. Yet for many women as well as men, a traditional family remained the ideal, even as it receded from possibility.