The Significance of Wanda

How one woman doomed the ERA

The Weekly (Champaign-Urbana)

June 19, 1981

I had forgotten about this piece, and was delighted to realize that it was pretty good. (I really should have done more on-the-ground reporting.) The Equal Rights Amendment debate in Illinois seemed a circus at the time, which explains the editor's jokey sub-headline, "How One Woman’s Mistake May Have Doomed ERA In Illinois . . . the nation . . . and changed the course of history!" Looking back, however, it’s plain that Wanda was indeed significant. 

 

I did this piece for Illinois Times, but Bill Groninger of The Weekly, a short-lived paper up the road, asked to rerun it, and I revised it slightly for his purposes.

A knot of people standing together, chatting, might have been waiting for a bus, except that they were standing in the corridor outside Circuit Court Room D on the third floor of the Sangamon County Building in Springfield. It is November 7, 1980, the day Wanda Brandstetter is scheduled to be sentenced for attempting to bribe a Pecatonica legislator during a crucial ERA ratification vote in the Illinois General Assembly in May.

 

Brandstetter is 54 years old, an unpaid field organizer for the National Organization for Women, holder of a Ph.D in biology (little used), separated wife, adoptive mother of three, admitted political novice, victim.

 

Physically formidable, privately likeable, in public she seemed dazed at first, swept up like Dorothy in a cyclone and deposited, blinking, in a Land of Oz in which microphones and TV lights grew on the trees. Her trial had been reported but not well understood. Most people figured she was unlucky.

 

Brandstetter gets off the elevator and turns toward the courtroom, and the reporters, obeying a collective reflex, turn as one to see. Their bus has arrived.

 

* * *

 

The act with which Wanda Brandstetter traduced the collective sensibilities of the sovereign people of Illinois was simple enough. On May 14, 1980, Brandsetter, who was in Springfield to lobby on behalf of the ERA, had scribbled a message on the back of a business card. "Mr. Swanstrom—the offer to help in your election—$1000 for your campaign for a pro-ERA vote." She handed it to a Rep. Nord Swanstrom in a statehouse corridor.

 

It was, as commentators later pointed out, a stupid thing to do. Votes in the General Assembly are bought and sold every day. Brandstetter, however, had erred in making her offer documentable. The difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution is exactly fifteen letters. Such transactions are governed by a protocol as strict as that governing married men and mistresses in Victorian England: all vices are forgiven, so long as one is discreet.

 

* * *

 

When Wanda Brandstetter steps off the elevator and begins loping towards the courtroom, she is unsmiling but not solemn. Flanked by friends she is wearing a white linen suit and a bright green blouse. ERA colors, a walking pro-ERA pennant. She nods hello to some of the reporters who had followed the case since it broke. The reporters returned her greetings with professionally polite "Hi Wanda"'s. Everybody calls her Wanda.

 

Inside, the courtroom looks like a 1950s hotel lobby. The benches are filled with reporters, an occasional spectator, members of NOW making a gesture of sororal solidarity, friends, and relatives. The judge had not arrived. In front of the benches, leaning against the railing like a lawyer making a summation to a jury, Brandsetter submits to desultory questioning. "Are you just a housewife then?" "A women never marries a house," Brandstetter replies icily, "and it's never just 'just.'”

 

* * *

 

It was part of the public—though not the courtroom—defense of Brandstetter that bribery is a way of life in Springfield, that in the hectic days before the scheduled May ERA vote so much money was changing hands that the capitol looked like a drive-in bank on a Friday night, that Brandstetter had been fleeced by small-town sharpies.

 

It was an affecting image, and not far wrong. Everybody was dealing that week. Even President Carter had holed up beside the phone in the White House with a pocketful of dimes, calling amendment backers and booers and those in between, offering a little federal money here, and a little Presidential ego massage there. Votes on the ERA in Illinois that day were a precious commodity. There were only 236 of them in the whole world, and to own one was to be a rich man.

 

Gov. James Thompson was in the game, too. Thompson is for the ERA. as is most of polite society in Illinois. Yet Thompson has been careful to not get caught too far in front of the public on the issue of women's rights. Statehouse observers have been fascinated by the way the governor's trick back gives out every time an ERA vote approaches; some reporters say you can use the governor's back to predict upcoming ERA votes the way some people can forecast a storm because their big toes throb.

 

* * *

 

Brandstetter's defense had two themes. Her lawyers argued that offering a lawmaker $1,000 and campaign help only hours before a vote does not constitute a bribe attempt but is a constitutionally protected expression of citizenly opinion on a matter of public interest. The claim that even in Illinois the right to bribe is guaranteed by the First Amendment may have secretly gratified legislators, but it impressed no one else, least of all the judge, who dismissed motions based on it.

 

Bribery is as much a part of the legislative process in Springfield as hangovers, and, like any cultural practice of honorable duration, has evolved a subtle code governing its practice. This code had been scrupulously observed by the leader of the Stop ERA movement, Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly is the wife of a well-to-do husband, and thus resented by ERA backers for the abuse of privilege. She adhered to the rules of influence-peddling in Springfield as obediently as a pastor's wife adheres to Emily Post at a missionary circle tea. This infuriates ERA backers, who castigate her for her hypocrisy without understanding that privilege is the issue, and that hypocrisy is privilege's mask. In the economy of feminism, hypocrisy is a vested interest.

 

Phyllis—it is symptomatic of the lack of seriousness with which women's rights still is regarded that the press reduced the principals to first names, like soap opera stars—had delivered notes herself. One of them went to a Mount Olive representative. It read: "Gary—Stop ERA has tremendous strength in your area. We had great results from the one-day anti-ERA ad. Stand firm and we will stand with you." He was re-elected.

To Brandstetter partisans, that note constituted an offer as unambiguous as hers; as Brandstetter herself complained to reporters, "Her note said exactly the same thing mine said, only in legally couched terms. Mine was direct and honest." Honesty, however, is a virtue which the law finds suspect.

 

Schlafly's note didn't say the same thing as Brandstetter's. It only meant the same thing, and the law deals with things as they are said. Schlafly's dishonest note was legal, while Brandstetter's honest one was illegal. It is one of the accumulated ironies of the case that women working so fervently to extend the protections of law should be so cavalier about its application.

 

* * *

 

"You may proceed with your statement." Sheila Murphy, one of three lawyers defending Brandstetter, reads from a script. Her client had been raised on a Missouri farm and worked her way through college—details presumably intended to show the great distance Wanda's ambition had carried her; Lincoln was not the last American to win votes by pointing to a humble birth. She worked as a psychiatric social worker in Chicago (a caring spirit, selfless and true) "to try to make the world a better place."

 

Murphy reads on. Brandstetter had specialized in embryology in college. There is more, about raising three children, and outrage at seeing homeless women sleeping in phone booths in New York City. It sounds like a nominating speech. Big finish: My client, Your Honor, has led "an exemplary life."

 

Except, one felt compelled to add, for that felony conviction.

 

* * *

 

Brandstetter was appropriated as a symbol by both sides of the ERA fight, pointed to as the embodiment of either perfidy or martyrdom. But who was she? Nothing was known of her at the time of her indictment, and her public image afterward was painted, a brushstroke at a time, by her attorneys while reporters, exhausted by the legislative session and bored to the point of nausea by ERA, held the canvas. The image which gradually took shape was that of a woman who was idealistic (read naive), well-meaning, unschooled in the devious ways of politics. There was no hint of self-service in what she did, only zeal for a cause. To many feminists, of course, Brandstetter had been indicted for their sins, and there were attempts (with attorneys' blessing) to portray her as noble and so to render implausible the ignoble act of which she was accused.

 

The acme of the Brandsetter hagiography was reached by columnist Anne Keegan of the Chicago Tribune in a piece "published August 27, less than a week before her trial began. The piece was unblushingly titled, "A fighting lady's down but not out." It told of how little Wanda had had to walk three miles to a county school every day, how if she wanted to play on the boys' baseball team she would "have to catch the fastest, hardest, meanest balls they could throw at her," how even though "her teeth may be clenched, her hands may be stinging red," she's "taking it once again and vowing to fight.”

 

Brandstetter rises, faces the judge, and, reading from handwritten sheets, delivers her own pre-sentence statement. She had taken the stand in her own defense and done badly, in effect admitting her guilt. Today she has her chance to explain it. "I stand here because the men of this nation have betrayed one half of the human species, their own mothers included," she intones. "I will not be subdued by the state, rather I deny my consent to be governed and to be taxed by all bodies of government within this nation . . . I state my posture of revolt against male laws for the sake of my two daughters and my son, and all my sisters."

 

Wanda Brandstetter had just seceded from the United States. On the benches, four women, including Illinois NOW president Sheila Clarke, are crying.

 

The sentence is read. The judge notes Brandstetter's exemplary life, and the fact that her action was not undertaken for personal gain. The prosecution had asked for no jail time, only a fine—"substantial" fine, according to the state's attorney. The judge describes what constitutes justice. Conditional release for a year. A fine of $500. Plus 150 hours of unpaid work tutoring biology to handicapped or poor children.

 

One has to do more than that to get into the Junior League.

 

Outside the courtroom, Brandstetter answers questions. Everyone expresses relief that the sentence was not harsher; later, Clarke and others will deride the tutoring requirements as "women's work," and insist implausibly that the judge should have assigned Brandstetter to work for the ERA instead. Brandstetter has a formal statement, a strangely upbeat one, for someone who recently seceded. "I believe in America," she says, "and I will protest my conviction the lawful way." But under questioning she reasserts that she would consider not paying taxes to the government until the ERA is ratified, an act of protest which is unambiguously unlawful.

 

If Lewis Carroll had been a reporter instead of a mathematician (I wonder as I scribble notes) would he have named his story Wanda in Wonderland? Or would he, like most reporters I know, be so despairing of the ability of fiction to encompass what they see that he would never have written it?

 

Glancing down the hall, I could have sworn I saw a white rabbit dart down an air shaft.

 

* * *

 

Wanda by now is last year's news. She and the ERA have disappeared beneath a swelling tide of RTA bailouts, budget cuts, and "bungled assassinations. Even at that depth, of course, a light flickers. An appeal of Brandstetter's conviction had been filed even before the courtroom hads emptied on sentencing day; later it was announced that David Goldberger, law professor and former ACLU attorney, had joined the appeals team.

 

In the months since her conviction, ERA leaders insisted that Brandstetter's conviction had not harmed their cause. Wanda did not discredit the ERA. But she did help delay it.

A brave new world has dawned since May 1980. A pro-ERA Democrat's place in the Illinois speaker's chair has been taken by an anti-ERA Republican, and Phyllis Schlafly has let it be known that she is interested in being named to the U.S. Supreme Court—an appointment which already has precedents in an administration which names dentists as energy secretaries and actors as ambassadors. The voters in the fall election did not confirm Gov. Thompson's prediction for a more pro-ERA General Assembly and sent a more conservative one to Springfield instead. ERA is not dead in Illinois, but it is orphaned.

 

Does that give the Wanda affair too much weight? Historians are more likely to point to the 1977 ruling requiring that the amendment be approved by a three-fifths majority of each Illinois house. In a February editorial, the Arlington Heights Herald quoted Alexander Hamilton, who said, "To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is . . . to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser." Hamilton was one of the brighter talents drafted into the ERA wars, and historians no doubt will share the Herald's high opinion of his argument as it pertains to the Illinois ERA case. They always see society's thumbprint in tangled bureaucratic traces.

 

But if history is merely another form of advocacy, I would like to make my plugs now for an interpretation which acknowledges that reason was sheered from its moorings and left to drift loose in the Statehouse like a punt in a whirlpool, that history really does revolve on such insignificant pivots, that when we look back to recall that the ERA did not pass in Illinois before the 1982 deadline and, that without Illinois the national ratification effort proved to be doomed, we recall that both happened because Brandstetter's arrest scuttled ERA in Illinois at a crucial juncture of history and opportunity, so that the failure of this vast enterprise must be traced to that ill-considered moment of May 15, 1980, when Wanda reached for her pen.

 

A little mistake, Benjamin Franklin once cautioned, breeds great mischief. ●

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