Despite being the only unratified state in the nation with a supportive governor, president pro-tempore, and house speaker, the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass. Oklahoma. In the conclusion (Chapter Five), I analyze the various reasons citizens and politicians have put forth as to why the amendment failed in a state with such a liberal past. Ultimately, I argue that the power of the New Right was too much for ERA activists to overcome. Conservatives had a single, unified leader in Phyllis Schlafly and a powerful and impressive web of national organizations to back them up. Oklahoma was fertile ground for the socially conservative and libertarian values of the New Right. By the end of the ERA debates in 1982 the state had undergone a political transformation like nothing it had experienced before. For those who experienced that
political revolution, it was probably no surprise that Oklahoma became the “reddest state in the nation.”
The first Oklahoma House vote on the ERA was unexpectedly controversial due to an intervention from an interested outsider. A month earlier, in February 1972, the Phyllis Schlafly Report featured an article titled “What’s Wrong with the Equal Rights Amendment?” to the homes of conservative Oklahoma subscribers. After her syndication success on several Republican and religious radio shows, Phyllis Schlafly began a monthly newsletter in 1967. Schlafly was a successful author and lawyer who was heavily involved in the thriving New Right and its relationship with the Republican Party. Schlafly’s article assured its readers that the passage of the ERA would “absolutely and positively” make women subject to the draft, put single mothers at risk of losing custody of their children and child support, and force women into the workforce.
Ann Patterson, a local woman who would eventually lead the Oklahoma antiERA forces under Schlafly, read the article and immediately called her representative when she heard about the upcoming vote. In an interview with sociologist Ruth Murray Brown, Patterson explained her initial understanding of the ERA before Schlafly’s article: “We didn’t know anything about the amendment at all. In fact, I thought it was a good thing until I read Phyllis’ Report.” Patterson passed out Schlafly’s article to legislators before the vote. On March 29, the ERA failed in the House, 36 to 52, with Democratic Representative C.H. Spearman, Jr. stating that the amendment needed to be researched further before the House could approve it. Still, ERA supporters remained positive; the gallery was filled with those in favor of the amendment while only five anti-ERA activists showed up.
Opposition to the ERA had also begun to organize in Oklahoma, largely through the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly and her groups Eagle Forum and STOP ERA. Uniting with the growing New Right to protect Christian and family values, this nationwide coalition of ERA opponents brought conservative women into Oklahoma’s political sphere. Firmly established in the state by 1977, Schlafly and her anti-ERA activists changed the perception of the amendment for many Oklahomans. Using the multifaceted religious and political beliefs of the pro-ERA women in the state, those against the amendment portrayed the ERA as a gateway to extend gay and abortion rights. Schlafly and her supporters also used the dissatisfaction many Oklahomans felt with the Democratic Party to discredit the amendment. As the fear of “women libbers” increased, those in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment insisted that the amendment was mainstream and moderate.
Sociologist Ruth Murray Brown argues “the anti-ERA organizations, which became the nucleus of the pro-family movement, was born the weekend after the ERA’s defeat in Oklahoma.” Although attributing the New Right’s birth to 1972 and in Oklahoma specifically is largely an overstatement, the ERA did play a large role in uniting conservatives in Oklahoma and, in turn, mobilizing the New Right. Historian Rick Perlstein writes, “For many Middle Americans it [the ERA] was the most horrifying development imaginable-the one thread that, once pulled, might unweave the fabric of civilization itself.” Moving from her focus of anti-communism to the moral corruption of the United States, Phyllis Schlafly became the matriarch of the grassroots conservative movement against the amendment.
In the early 1960s, Schlafly became well known in Republican circles for her book on then presidential candidate Barry Goldwater titled 'A Choice Not an Echo'. Ironically, Goldwater tried to distance himself from Schlafly’s far-right conservative ideals during his campaign, and she was largely considered an extremist until the mid- 1970s. Historian Daniel Critchlow argues that, after the Watergate scandal that lasted from 1972-1975, the Republican Party rebranded itself from one of big business and elites to the party of the average white American citizen, an image that Schlafly skillfully utilized.
Although the anti-ERA movement would eventually join the New Right and involve itself with a range of issues, in the 1970s and early 1980s it had one extremely focused goal: to kill the ERA. The real difference between those for the ERA and those against it was a very old issue that had plagued the women’s movement since the 1920s. The question of whether women are fundamentally the same or different from men is really what split the women of the 1970s. Most feminists believed that women were capable of the same activities as men, and that it was society that created and designated sex roles that continued to constrain women. Those against the ERA thought that men and women were different beings completely, and that biology rendered women more suited for motherly roles and housework. In order to defend their way of life as homemakers, ERA opponents in Oklahoma organized under OK STOP ERA. As the most powerful anti-ERA group in the state, it attracted support from other groups including Women Who Want to Be Women, the Farm Bureau, and most importantly the Eagle Forum. OK STOP ERA owed much of its fame to Schlafly.
By 1977, the anti-ERA activists in Oklahoma were both highly organized and focused, and began to successfully transform the perception of the ERA from moderate and popular to radical and unnecessary. Under the guidance of Schlafly herself, STOP ERA men and women in the state began organizing large bus trips to the capitol through their churches to protest the ERA and lobby legislators. Schlafly was meticulous in her leadership skills and tactics, and she understood the importance of appearance. The training workshops Schlafly ran, in which she taught women how to dress, what colors to wear, what and how much makeup to put on, how to approach legislators, and how to handle criticism were all a testament to the importance of perception. “Above all,” historian Donald Critchlow writes, “Schlafly emphasized the importance of conducting oneself as a lady. Schlafly recognized early on the importance of presentation and the power of the media over public perception. She understood the importance of conveying passive, feminine charm when it came to influencing legislators as well. Many of those who Schlafly trained were highly passionate about stopping the amendment, and confrontation began to increase between parties on both sides.
As a close friend and ally of Schlafly, Reagan also worried a constitutional amendment for gender equality under the law could have unwanted repercussions. Instead, he adopted what he called the “50 States Project” in October of 1980, whose goal was to “identify and change laws at the state level which discriminated against women.” To show his good faith to women, President Reagan also appointed several women to his cabinet and the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Of course, Schlafly was not shy about disagreeing with Reagan on women’s equality, stating, “I think it’s nice to have a woman on the Supreme Court. It’s obvious that she got the job because she’s a woman.” Schlafly was also not completely satisfied with President Reagan’s stances on women’s employment and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She boldly testified to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Commission against the EEOC’s guidelines on sexual harassment in 1981, proclaiming, “men seldom make passes at virtuous women.” Despite her criticisms, President Reagan respected Schlafly, and his popular conservative politics only strengthened the anti-ERA leaders’ influence within the Republican Party.
Although Oklahoma activists for the ERA tried to portray the amendment as both mainstream and based in local needs and not outside interests, influence from national organizations, politicians, and leaders like NOW and Bella Abzug became unavoidable. Instead of strengthening support for the ERA, the National Women’s Conference created publicity for the New Right and gave anti-ERA activists in Oklahoma more ammunition to portray Oklahoma feminists as anti-family, radical, and immoral. Because Oklahoma was one of four states targeted as the easiest wins for the ERA by NOW, the state was thrown into the national spotlight in 1981. Annoyed with the advertisements, celebrity rallies, and national leaders like Walter Mondale trying to sway Oklahoma legislators, many locals became turned off by the amendment and just wanted the issue to go away. Even Oklahoma feminists themselves became disillusioned with the mainstream tactics of legislative leaders, involvement of NOW members from other states, and the negative image assigned to them by Schlafly and other anti-ERA activists. Some women, like Wanda Jo Peltier, decided to sarcastically embrace the term “radical.”
Senator Marvin York believes the reason why his campaign to ratify the ERA in Oklahoma was unsuccessful was due mainly to the overwhelming negative publicity the amendment received. Although this was largely due the incredibly pointed tactics of
Schlafly and local pro-family activists, the state’s most popular newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, also contributed to this success. York stated, “…the Daily Oklahoman out of Oklahoma City was run by an arch conservative by the name of E. K. Gaylord. His newspaper was so powerful, and still is, that it set the agenda for all the other smaller papers.”
I argue that the failure of the ERA in Oklahoma was most likely a combination of all of these oversights. There was more that Governor Nigh and other leaders like Cleta Deatherage and Marvin York probably could have done, but one must also take into consideration the changing political environment that these men and women were trying to traverse, and also the massive undertaking that adding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is.
The ERA largely failed because of the mobilization of the New Right and their successful rebranding of women’s rights in Oklahoma and around the country. Those opposed to the amendment had a powerful and growing conservative movement behind them, while activists who supported the ERA found the Democratic Party and even liberal leaders of the 1960s losing their prominence in politics. Most importantly, pro ERA activists did not have their own Phyllis Schlafly. Not only did they lack a vocal leader, ERA supporters also did not have a single, unified organization to stand behind or set precedent for a cohesive strategy.
By 1982, the political winds of change had swept through Oklahoma, and it was conservatives who controlled and defined the Equal Rights Amendment debate. As Schlafly put it, “The defeat of the ERA is the greatest victory for women’s rights since the suffrage movement.” It was this dynamic leader who ultimately controlled the image of the ERA, convincing Oklahoma lawmakers and leaders, who were once supportive, to walk away from the ERA.
Opinion of the Editor
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David Van Risseghem is the Director of Sooner Politics.org. The resource is committed to informing & mobilizing conservative Oklahomans for civic reform. This endeavor seeks to utilize the efforts of all cooperative facets of the Conservative movement...