I was starting my sophomore year at The College of William and Mary in the fall of 1981 and would have, in my earnest, innocent way, identified as a feminist. That year, the annual speakers’ forum opened with a debate about the Equal Rights Amendment, featuring Phyllis Schlafly, founder of STOP ERA, and Karen DeCrow, former President of the National Organization for Women, a group which advocated for passage of the ERA, among other things.*
I have a clear memory of sitting on the bleachers in William and Mary Hall listening to these two women debate each other, something that, in and of itself was a bit unusual in my experience thus far. I suppose it was seen as “women’s issue” so women were permitted to talk about it. I don’t remember much, except being surprised to find that Schlafly was thoughtful, even compelling, in her beliefs, (despite disagreeing vehemently with everything she said) and that both women remained civil to each other throughout the evening. No name calling, no shouting over each other.
The report (see page 2) from The Flat Hat, the college paper, indicates the audience mostly sided with DeCrow, wearing ERA Now and .59¢ buttons, the latter referencing the fact that, at the time, women made 59 cents to every dollar a man made. That gap has closed, and is now, according to the US Department of Labor, 83.7 cents. I discovered that there is a “holiday” in March each year to commemorate the fact that it takes women 15 months to earn what men do in 12 months. This gap, of course, widens when it comes to women of color.
Political issues aside, I titled this post “once upon a time” because there *was* a time, in the past, when people who disagreed could be on the same stage together to describe and defend their ideas in a civil way, to give listeners a chance to hear and evaluate those ideas and use them to form their own opinions, perhaps becoming more nuanced by being exposed to the other side. Civil discourse seems to be a thing of the past, and I am not sure it is something we can get back.
*I am grateful to The College of William and Mary’s digital archive for access to The William and Mary News and The Flat Hat. I was able to confirm the date of the debate and read the follow up review to refresh my sometimes faulty memory.