Before South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley stole the limelight in the GOP’S War on Women dropping rhetorical bombs like women “don’t care about contraception,” calling rape crisis services “special interests,” and declaring abortion debates are “just not where women are,” there was an equally well-quaffed, articulate conservative woman leading the charge against women’s equal rights: Phyllis Schlafly.
Why would a woman not only stand in the way of the passage of the ERA (an amendment claiming "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex") but so aggressively taunt those who supported it? Schlafly claimed women were superior to men and in an act of rhetorical genius asked “Why should we lower ourselves to ‘equal rights’ when we already have the status of special privilege?” Schlafly and her supporters painted a picture where women, if “lowered” to an equal status, would be subject to the draft and lose all of their glorious feminine difference—including our single-gender bathrooms. Women should protect their privileges, they insisted, not debase themselves with equality.
Schlafly’s demure appearance belied her hateful and reactionary comments:
Sex education, sexual harassment, rape—these are only problems for OTHER women, Schlafly insists, women with low moral standards who deserve what they get.
Some top Republican women continue to use this tactic of putting themselves above silly women’s issues which call for equality. Haley blows off questions about the GOP’s platform which refuses abortion even in cases of rape and incest. When pressed on the GOP endorsement of the Human Life Amendment she replied: “I have no idea. I haven’t been paying attention.” Having to work harder for respect (and for equal pay?) in the workplace makes you better, more superior to men, Ann Romney tells us. Women “work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work” and “that's fine. We don't want easy.” These women place themselves above issues like reproductive justice and equal work for equal respect and pay.
This anti-equality rhetoric worked for Schlafly. According to her rhetoric, women did want easy (Sorry, Ann Romney!), but Schlafly herself worked with superhuman tenacity, with the strength and composure of a steel magnolia to oppose women’s equal rights. At the point when she decided to oppose the ERA it had wide support: it passed in the House 354-23 and in the Senate 84-8; it had support from Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter; the ALF-CIO, the League of Women Voters, and the National Education Association all backed the amendment; Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan all wrote articles in praise of it; and celebrities like Patty Duke, Ann Landers, Erma Bombeck, Marlo Thomas, and Carol Burnett spoke up in solidarity. Schlafly went from having virtually no grassroots organization to stopping the ratification process (five states that voted to ratify the ERA eventually rescinded their support) with her hateful diatribes hidden under her prim, unflappable façade. In Schlafly’s words: “We had no Rush Limbaughs, no Fox News, no ‘no-spin zone’ to challenge the need for the amendment. We had no Internet, no e-mail, no fax machines to help rally an opposition.” It was all the contemptuous rhetoric spun by one woman.
While we can still hear echoes of Schlafly in Haley and Romney, the majority of women voters aren’t convinced that we’re above equal rights. We’ve seen and heard too much from extremists who are committed to infringing upon our basic rights as human beings. Polls consistently show that women voters favor Obama over Romney. While the conservative rhetoric of anti-equality might have worked in the past, believe it or not, women would rather keep control over their own bodies.
Sorry Gov. Haley. It looks like women actually do care about contraception.