Dark Money “Women’s Groups” Are Using Anti-Trans Scaremongering to Oppose ERA

March 22 marks 50 years since Congress voted to send the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would outlaw sex discrimination, to the states for ratification.

By 1977, the ERA appeared to be a done deal with bipartisan support and 35 of the necessary 38 state ratifications to amend the Constitution. Then the anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly mobilized right-wing women to oppose the ERA, playing a major role in stalling the amendment.

Schlafly passed away in 2016, but her anti-feminist legacy very much lives on through “Eagle Forum” and other women’s groups funded by dark money — funding sources whose donors are kept secret from the public but are used for significant expenditures intended to influence elections, judicial nominations, ballot measures, and legislation. The ability to traffic in dark money gives corporations and the wealthy undue sway in politics with little accountability.

Today, Eagle Forum and right-wing women’s groups like Concerned Women for America (CWA) and Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) continue to oppose the ERA as well as the Equality Act, a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Some of Schlafly’s arguments, such as “the career most women want is marriage, home, husband, and children,” as she said in 1982, are not likely to resonate with most women in 2022. Instead, today’s right-wing women’s groups have adopted a new tactic: using attacks on transgender people — the GOP’s new boogeyman — to try to undermine support for the ERA and the Equality Act.

The Origins of the Anti-Feminist Women’s Groups Fighting the ERA

One of the most influential anti-feminist campaigners of the late 20th century was Beverly LaHaye, the wife of far right evangelical minister Tim LaHaye. LaHaye claims she was so disturbed by a 1978 Barbara Walters TV interview with renowned feminist Betty Friedan on the Equal Rights Amendment that she jumped off of her living room couch into action (in reality, however, this founding legend is not based in fact, because Walters demonstrably did not interview Friedan in 1978). LaHaye then called an emergency meeting of Christian women in San Diego to counter what she called “the feminists’ anti-God, anti-family rhetoric.”

That same year, Schlafly, who was an early member of the extremist John Birch Society and also opposed racial integration and gay rights, was already in the final push of a six-year battle against the ERA. Her STOP ERA group, which was renamed “Eagle Forum” in 1975 (and was briefly called “Eagle Trust Fund” when the group was founded in 1967), framed the ERA as an attack on a Biblical notion of gender roles and contended that the amendment would undermine benefits for housewives. With the Vietnam War as a political backdrop, Schlafly argued that passing the ERA would allow the U.S. government to draft women. Her members took homemade baked goods to state legislators, telling them that a vote for the ERA was a vote against “Mom and apple pie.”

Back in Southern California, LaHaye’s outreach was branded as Concerned Women for America (CWA), which set up “prayer/action chapters” across the country to block the ERA through lawsuits, TV ads and even daily fasting for the amendment’s defeat.

In the years since their founding, both CWA and Eagle Forum have swelled into larger interest groups funded by dark money.

Between 2010 and 2013, CWA and its sister 501(c)(4) organization Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee received about $11.3 million from groups linked to the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, including Freedom Partners, Center to Protect Patient Rights and TC4 Trust.

Many of the donors to Eagle Forum and its related “Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund” (EFELDF) are unknown, but we do know that they have received tens of thousands over the years from the Bradley Foundation and Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, which are both massive foundations with deep connections to the far right. (Both foundations have also funded groups that undermined public faith in the 2020 presidential election results.)

Eagle Forum and EFELDF tax documents show that they brought in a combined revenue of more than $1.5 million in 2019 and almost $3 million during the midterm election year in 2018.

CWA and Eagle Forum have been joined in their anti-ERA efforts by another, newer right-wing women’s group that is similarly blocking policies that would benefit women: the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and its sister group, Independent Women’s Voice (IWV). IWF was founded in the 1990s as “Women for Clarence Thomas” to defend the now-Supreme Court associate justice during his confirmation hearings from Anita Hill’s testimony that he had made gross sexual overtures toward her as her boss (accusations that he denied).

IWF has used its “independent” label to conceal its right-wing mission. IWF President Heather Higgins told donors that “being branded as neutral, but having people who know know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.”

“Independent” branding aside, IWF and IWV are palpably far to the right and continue to back anti-women policies and politicians. In fact, IWV ran robocalls aiding candidates like Todd Akin, after he claimed rape could not lead to pregnancy, and Richard Mourdock after he said that rape victims who became pregnant “carried a gift from God.” They also championed Betsy DeVos’s changes to university Title IX provisions, which “gave perpetrators of sexual assault a blueprint to block damning evidence against them.”

IWF also has longstanding ties to right-wing dark money, with links to the Koch family fortune and the Bradley Foundation. In 2014, the Bradley Foundation funded IWF to develop messaging kits aimed at countering popular, pro-women policies. According to the most recent IRS filings of IWF and IWV, they received more than $4.75 million from their funders. IWF’s funding has only increased in recent years, and so have their secret funders, which include donors whose identities are hidden by DonorsTrust as well as funding that has passed through Leonard Leo’s dark money network.

The Equal Rights Amendment Is Back, But So Are Its Dark Money Detractors

Recently, feminist activists and politicians have reinvigorated the fight for the widely popular ERA and have seen plenty of pushback. In 2020, nine days before Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA, the Trump administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) preemptively blocked the amendment, declaring that the certification deadline had expired, although the time frame was not included in the actual amendment’s text.

Eagle Forum, CWA and IWF jointly signed on to a letter urging House representatives to vote against a ratification extension. As Schlafly did in the 1970s, they argued that the ERA would nullify laws and benefits for women.

But the groups also incorporated a new, anti-trans discourse into their attack on the amendment, arguing that it would “bar laws from taking into account the biological differences between men and women.” They assert that this could “place women and girls in harm’s way” by supposedly doing away with separate locker rooms, bathrooms and women’s prisons.

But most campaigns for bathroom access for transgender people — and all current state laws on the subject — do not focus on eliminating gender-separated bathrooms. Rather, they tend to encourage allowing single-stall bathrooms to be usable by all genders and on ensuring trans people can use the facilities that align with their gender.

In addition to misrepresenting the actual goals and outcomes of campaigns for all-gender bathroom access, this characterization of the amendment relies on unfounded bigotry to position transgender people as dangerous people, ignoring that there has been no increase in public safety incidents in the 21 states and more than 300 cities with LGBTQ+ protections. The inflaming of such fears led to the widely condemned “bathroom bill” legislation in North Carolina.

Following the OLC opinion, Illinois, Nevada and Virginia filed suit against the U.S. archivist (head of the National Archives and Records Administration) for failure to publish and certify the ERA as a constitutional amendment. Eagle Forum filed an amicus brief opposing the three states. When this case was dismissed, a similar suit followed and IWF’s Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC) submitted an amicus brief in opposition.

Shortly after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office, Virginia’s new Attorney General Jason Miyares pulled the state out of the lawsuit, a move IWF and CWA applauded although the Youngkin administration acted against the will of the majority of Virginians.

The fight for the ERA is not over. IWLC filed another amicus brief against the ratifying states in the still-pending case Illinois and Nevada v. Ferriero, which again relies heavily on attacks on transgender people.

Mapping This New Tactic: Transphobia

In some ways, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community have always been part of anti-ERA campaigning. Starting in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly and her allies warned that the courts could interpret the ERA’s “sex” discrimination language to include “sexual orientation” and usher in same-sex marriage.

Having largely lost the legal and cultural battle against gay rights in the intervening decades, anti-ERA groups today are riding the recent wave of transphobia. Last year saw record highs in anti-trans violence and rhetoric. It was the worst year for legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ people in recent history.

Contemporary anti-ERA groups have again seized upon “sex” discrimination, but this time they lament that the transgender community could be protected under the amendment. In a 2019 newsletter CWA used explicitly anti-trans language to articulate this shift: “Unlike in the 1970s … the ERA would be used to impose the most radical consequences of the new ‘gender revolution’, which allows men to declare themselves women and vice versa.”

Eagle Forum’s 2021 action campaign, “ERA ERAses Women,” urged members to call their representatives and oppose the elimination of the ERA’s ratification deadline because they were “concerned” the amendment would “expand [rights] on the basis of sex to gender-nonconforming and transgender women and girls, and nonbinary people.”

The new anti-trans strategy extends beyond these groups’ own echo chambers and into court documents and congressional committees. For example, IWF’s most recent ERA amicus brief argues that legal protections for transgender people should invalidate states’ ratifications of the amendment, seemingly contending that states that voted for equality in the past might find that the ERA today offers too much equality in 2022.

IWF’s Senior Policy Analyst Inez Stepman paraded this argument before Congress last October when, as a minority witness for the House Committee’s ERA hearing, she claimed that the ERA would jeopardize women’s physical safety, pointing to the alleged violence cisgender women experience at the hands of transgender women in prisons.

However, the majority of transgender people who are imprisoned are placed in facilities based on the sex assigned to them at birth, and transgender women who are incarcerated with men experience high rates of extreme violence. Research also shows that transgender people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people.

Right-wing women’s groups like IWF have used anti-trans attacks to oppose the Equality Act as well. At a virtual “rally” against the legislation hosted by Family Policy Alliance (a right-wing Christian group with an established anti-LGBTQ+ record and history of sponsoring anti-transgender state legislation), IWF’s Stepman called the Equality Act “the most dangerous piece of legislation we’ve seen come out of Congress” because it would allow transgender women to compete in women’s sports and access women’s shelters.

None of Us Is Equal Until We Are All Equal

The fear-mongering about expanded transgender rights — grounded in the baseless claim that transgender women somehow represent a threat to cisgender women — is simply the latest in a history of attacks on the ERA based on the sexist notion that women are in need of protection and not equality.

For these anti-feminist groups, this “protection” is worth any cost, even if it means blocking legislation that would benefit all women, like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which these same groups have also opposed on the grounds that it would include trans women. (IWF has opposed VAWA since its creation, though the group recently made a political pivot to support a right-wing version.)

Similarly, right-wing women’s groups have gone after other benefits that the ERA could extend to people across the gender spectrum, such as access to safe and legal abortion and even efforts to close the gender pay gap.

Attacks on transgender people also invite increased policing of all people’s bodies, everywhere from the Olympic Games to public bathrooms.

Transgender activists have long warned of this: that undermining transgender people’s rights would also harm cisgender women, or, in other words, that cis and trans women’s liberation struggles are intertwined.

Trans-inclusive gender equality legislation like the ERA and the Equality Act would be a formidable step in the direction of that shared liberation.

When Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, it made history not only for reaching the ERA ratification threshold, but also because Delegate Danica Roem, the first openly transgender state legislator in U.S. history, was at the helm.

Roem and attorney Kate Kelly wrote, “The ERA isn’t about who we’re against; it’s an affirmative statement about who we’re for — everybody. This is about making our United States of America a more inclusive country, one where you’re protected because of who you are, not despite it.”