The ERA debate, first round
May 16, 1980
In this piece I wished a pox on both houses in the protracted debate about ratification of the ERA in Illinois. Each side had convinced itself that passage would usher in a new world for women—a good world or a bad one, depending on their cultural assumptions—but each was mistaken. The right had the worse of the arguments—they were the kind of people, as I put it here, who put the blame for rain on umbrellas—but they were the better politicians.
In any event, the issues that animated Illinois for those months now agitate the country as a whole. It is a dismaying spectacle for those of us foolish enough to believe (as I did) that a maturing America would by now have make the ERA moot.
One of the more charming aspects of life in Springfield is the opportunity it affords to read the latest political controversies in the streets instead of the papers. Last week, for example, partisans from both sides of the Equal Rights Amendment ratification issue came to town to plead their cases before the General Assembly. The restaurants, the library, and the statehouse rotunda were packed either with opponents—on opposite sides of the room, as if each had something catching—sporting red, stop-sign-shaped "STOP ERA" buttons or proponents wearing green "ERA YES" buttons. The Students for ERA were here too, as was obvious from the stickers pasted on newspaper coin boxes and lamp posts; ever since the '60s, the young have regarded vandalism as a legitimate form of political expression.
TV evangelist Jerry Falwell brought his traveling road show to town, too, and parked it on the statehouse lawn. The affair was billed as a "Stand Up for America" rally but it was in fact an anti-ERA revival. It was unremarkable except for Falwell's insistence that Phyllis Schlafly is the most important Illinoisan since Lincoln; evangelists, as should be clear by now, are one of the prices we pay for the First Amendment.
Much of the enduring success of Christianity lies in their ability to put on a good show. (Remember the loaves and fishes?) As American flags fluttered in the wind blowing off the podium, a tenor entertained the crowd with old favorites like "Wild Blue Yonder" and "Amazing Grace." (Hearing him, I was reminded that the intensity of faith among certain Protestants varies directly with the wobble in their vibratos.) When the crowd broke into "America" (which begins, "My country, 'tis of thee . . . ") a pair of women wearing "ERA YES" buttons remarked, almost plaintively, "It's our country, too."
ERA has been that kind of debate. But I don't wish this piece to be taken as another pro-ERA tract. In recent years I have honed an almost perfectly shaped indifference to the issue. Not to the issue of women's rights, but to ERA ratification. The sheer weight of nonsense from both sides has snuffed the fitful spark of interest that once burned inside me. I suspect I am not alone in this. And far from being ashamed of it, I find that indifference affords an unclouded perspective on this cloudiest of issues.
Of course, in the world in which I must circulate—the world of journalists and college professors, a place (repeating a favorite line from John Garvey) where one can go for days and days and not speak to anyone who had notheard of Kierkegaard—the equality of the sexes is thought to be as basic a part of the natural order as indoor plumbing or credit cards. This bias usually manifests itself as an unthinking acceptance of the need for an ERA—as unthinking as many ERA opponents' rejection of it, in fact. There are many differences between the opps and the pros (teased hair and the ERA conspicuous among them) but in their allegiance to their Causes they are as one.
There's been a lot of unthinking about ERA; there are limits to how complex an argument one can cram onto a placard, including the ten-second news spot, which is little more than an electronic placard. Both sides have long since ceased to debate the issue per se and argue instead about other things in the vocabulary of ERA. (Rather than argue about whether it is a good thing that divorce laws should fall with an even hand on husband and wife alike, they argue about whether divorce is a good thing.) This is probably healthy; the euphemisms of ERA make it possible for people to vent basic fears and hatreds openly which otherwise would have to stay hidden in various uncleaned corners of mental attics. As proponents rightly point out, unisex bathrooms are inconsequential to ERA. (Every home has a unisex bathroom, after all.) But that does not mean that the fear of unisex bathrooms is an inconsequential emotion. It comes from somewhere and should be respected for its reality if not its wisdom.
I suspect that ERA is a class struggle at heart. (Or more precisely a cultural one; the ERA is a middle class issue on both sides.) Exceptions abound, but generally the issue splits along the lines that divide city and small town, between the well-educated and the poorly educated, between those who look for guidance to the Bible and those who look to Time Inc., between—and this is what makes it such a fascinating referendum—the past and the future.
Indeed the ERA fight is a war, characterized by a sort of small-image fire. Each side has wider objectives, of course, but the immediate one in Illinois has been to conquer the front pages from whose heights one can command the field. The result has been a carnival of media-eventing from bread baking to Susan B. Anthony impersonations, all of which has given the campaign to amend our Constitution the air of a charity bazaar.
ERA's opponents have been the most shameless at the appropriation of symbols, and the most effective. They have captured the flag, motherhood, even apple pie. The worst of them are shrill and more than a little irrational. Their tangled reasoning on such points as abortion, divorce, and the family does not bear untying; it is sufficient to note only that they are the kind of people who put the blame for rain on umbrellas. Worst of all, they have made it impossible for people with reasoned objections to ERA to make their case without risking being shot as collaborators.
I have spoken with proponents who resent their opponents' willingness to be ridiculous for the sake of the cause, often in baffled tones, as if they were complaining about a neighbor who refused to mow his lawn. They don't stick to the issue, they say. Patriotism has nothing to do with ERA. And so on. Most of the pros are proudly reasonable people who always vote and even know the names of their mayors and who believe that politics is pretty much like a big PTA meeting. For years they have attempted to reason away their opponents' objections in the (I think) mistaken belief that their opponents were merely misinformed. There is, after all, that touching liberal idea that much that is pernicious in the world is the result of a lack of education, and that if people only knew better . . . . Well, the truth is that many opponents haven't just adopted irrationality as a superior political tactic. They are irrational. Rationality isn't something we're born with, but a cultural trait. It's the difference between having fingernails and having clean fingernails.
But one is not right merely because one's opponents are often fools. I cannot dismiss the opponents' worry about the mischief future Supreme Courts may do with an ERA on the books; handing the court so unqualified a statement as the ERA is a little like handing a legislator a thesaurus; you never know in support of what base cause he or she may use it. Nor am I persuaded that the ERA extension should have been granted without giving states a chance to rescind. Proponents have advanced their cause using the same kinds of distortions of law and logic which segregationists made so familiar. Most recently, some proponents have taken to castigating those Illinois state senators who so far have refused to allow ERA's passage. They do so allegedly on grounds of principle, complaining that the senators are thwarting the will of the people. But many of these same complainers bitterly denounced their elected officials during Vietnam for paying too close heed to their constituents and not voting their conscience.
Oh well. War is hell. The issues have become so muddled, and have been muddled for so long, that ERA is no longer right or wrong so much as it is boring. Except for partisans, who have forgotten their initial objections and go on fighting to avenge past fighting, the rest of us get more bored. And I'm not sure that the very boringness of ERA isn't proof that ERA is no longer necessary. There are forces at work (chiefly economic) which are immune to arguments and amendments alike. Women's rights are here because they are necessary for the time. In the end, amendments don't make change possible. They just make it official. ●