Decade of Disillusionment: 1972–1980

Equal Rights Amendment and the New Right

Equal Rights Amendment

Feminism became more mainstream in the 1970s as feminists and feminist allies rallied in support of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first proposed in Congress in 1923, three years after women gained the right to vote. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would ensure women had the same rights as men and no state could pass laws discriminating against women. After years of campaigning by feminists, Congress finally passed the ERA in 1972—nearly 50 years after it was first proposed.

The deadline for ratification of the ERA by the states was seven years. Thirty states ratified it in the first year. Feminists and feminist allies across the nation marched, petitioned, and rallied in support of ratification. The National Organization for Women (NOW) led much of the organization to garner support for the ERA. They recognized there were a multitude of laws that allowed for legal discrimination against women, all of which impeded equal access to employment. Conservative political and religious groups opposed the ERA. Phyllis Schlafly (1924–2016), an American writer and political activist, was one of the ERA's most vocal opponents. Schlafly believed the ERA would allow husbands to quit supporting their families and would allow the government to send women into combat, which was prohibited at the time. Ultimately, the ERA did not receive the requisite 38-state majority and was never ratified.

In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court ruled a woman's right to privacy extended to the decision to terminate a pregnancy. This decision also asserted the state had an interest in regulating abortion. The end result was that many of the restrictions states and the federal government placed on access to safe, legal abortions were rendered unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade was seen as a victory for women's rights.
First Lady Betty Ford wears a button in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although passed by Congress in 1972, only 35 states ratified the amendment-three states shy of the required three-fourths majority.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 5730761 (White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 - 1/20/1977)


Environmentalism flourished in the 1970s as the United States saw the first federal government agency dedicated to environmental regulations formed and a series of legislation passed in response to environmental disasters.

Environmentalism is the political and social movement that seeks to protect and preserve the environment through political and individual action. Prior to the 1970s there were few effective laws in the United States to protect the environment. Individual states and some localities passed their own regulations, but there was no enforcement or standardization of these at the federal level. In 1970 President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the need for national guidelines and enforcement of laws to protect the environment. The Clean Air Act of 1970, a piece of legislation that sought to prevent air pollution caused primarily by automobiles and manufacturing, was one of the first tasks tackled by the EPA. The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulated the discharge of wastewater by manufacturers and municipalities.

Environmental activists in the 1970s protested the use of nuclear power and industrial pollution. In 1979 an accident occurred at the nuclear power station on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Human error caused radioactive gases to be released into the atmosphere. There was no threat to the population surrounding the power plant or the environment, but activists were convinced a disaster had been barely averted and nuclear power posed a threat. Public opinion turned against nuclear power, and no new reactors were built in the years following the accident.

The Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, was built on a chemical waste site. In 1978 it was discovered chemical waste was making its way into the basements of the homes on the site. Further investigation revealed the residents of this neighborhood had a higher-than-average incidence of chromosomal abnormalities. It was concluded this was caused by exposure to chemical waste. The incident prompted the government to set up a federal superfund, a government fund to pay for the cleanup and abatement of improperly disposed of hazardous waste, in 1980.
Reporters and paparazzi surrounded President Carter as he left the site of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Fear of such accidents greatly eroded public support for the production and use of nuclear energy.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 540021

Rise of the New Right

The New Right movement of the 1960s and 1970s developed in response to the rapid social changes that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, which conservatives saw as a break from the traditional family and social values they supported.

The New Right movement was a social and political movement that began in the 1960s and continued into the 1970s and 1980s in response to the social and political move to the left in those decades. The New Right opposed abortion rights, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmative action, environmental legislation, and most forms of taxation. They perceived a decline in morality caused by liberal ideas such as gender and racial equality.

Like the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the New Right movement was born primarily on college campuses, and its followers were most likely to be white, Protestant, and from the suburbs. Organizations like College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom were instrumental in the rise of the New Right movement. Conservative Christian religious leaders, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, asserted the moral decline was due to feminism, homosexuality, and the lack of prayer in public schools. In 1979 Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political organization that advocated conservative social values. Members of the New Right rallied against the women's liberation movement and were fierce opponents of abortion. They felt a return to "traditional" gender roles, in which a woman stayed home with the children while the man supported the family, was necessary to end the moral decline.

The passage of California Proposition 13 in 1978 was a major victory for the New Right. The proposition took away the power of local governments to set their own property tax rates, cut property taxes significantly, and capped future increases at no more than 2 percent per year. It also mandated that all future state or local tax increases be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters.

The increase in conservatism set the stage for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan to be elected president in 1980. Republicans would control the White House for the next 12 years.