She Derailed the Fight for Equal Rights for Women

Even in the #MeToo era, many people don’t know that the Equal Rights Amendment never passed…because of one woman. Her name is Phyllis Schlafly.

Phyllis Schlafly honed her political skills in the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s, then put them to work to stop the ERA. She traveled the country decrying the proposed amendment, which sought to ensure equal rights for women under law, as “anti-family” and un-American.

In the process, she built a coalition of evangelical Christians and political conservatives that influenced the modern conservative movement.

Schlafly helped send the ERA down in defeat in 1982, but the battle for equal rights continued. Since then, many of the goals the ERA aimed for have been achieved by other means. And the predictions Schlafly made about what would happen if the amendment succeeded – from women serving in the military to gay rights – have also come to pass.​

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Director: Kathleen Hughes
  • Editor: Kristen Huntley

For Educators


This 13-minute video documents the struggle by feminists to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and the successful conservative response, led by Phyllis Schlafly, to prevent states from ratifying it after Congress approved it. It is useful for any lesson designed to introduce students to the ERA. The video clarifies for students how modern American politics came to be polarized around cultural controversies, and how the modern conservative movement organized itself into a political coalition that would lead to the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. This short documentary, which includes interviews with Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly, helps students see the relationship between modern struggles over gender equality and the battle over the ERA in the 70s and 80s.

Background reading

In 1966, the National Organization for Women established that a key goal of the feminist movement was the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed Constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. It had been introduced in Congress in 1923, then passed in 1972 with the condition that 38 states had to ratify it for it to become part of the Constitution. Support was bipartisan and ratification seemed like a sure thing, needing only eight more states.

Then came a housewife and mother of six from St. Louis named Phyllis Schlafly. She believed that the amendment would damage the role of women and the American family and had to be stopped. She took her cause on the road to political rallies, TV talk shows and state assemblies, where she plied legislators with fresh bread and pie.

By 1977, she had built a coalition – rooted in evangelical Christians, Catholics and political conservatives – that eventually stopped the E.R.A. three states short of ratification.

That coalition also provided a base for Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, and established Schlafly’s reputation among friends and foes as one of the most effective political organizers in modern American history.

Despite Schlafly’s victory against the ERA, many of the causes she railed against – abortion rights, same-sex marriage, women serving in the military – become realities of American life, protected by law. But Schlafly continued to plead her cause, right up until she died at age 92 in 2016.

The ERA has not passed, despite recent attempts to revive it.

Lesson Plan 1: Second Wave Feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment and Phyllis Schlafly

Students will learn about the battle in the 1970s between feminists and a group led by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed Constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women.

  • How the Equal Rights Amendment affected the ideological development of both political parties.
  • How activism on both the left and right can affect the ideology and status of political parties.
  • How the ERA related to the rise of modern conservatism and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
  • How modern politics have been affected by the politics of the 1970s.
Essential questions
  • How did the battle over the ERA affect the ideological development of the modern political parties?
  • Why was Schlafly such an effective advocate for her position?
  • How did the defeat of the ERA relate to the rise of conservatism and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980
    • Topic 8.11: The Civil Rights Movement Expands

      · Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development or process relates to another historical development or process.

      ·Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)