Equal Rights Amendment

September 7, 2011

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) began as a proposed (but unratified) amendment to the U.S. Constitution. First introduced to Congress in 1923, it was not finally approved by the Senate and submitted to the states for ratification until almost 50 years later. The wording in the 1972 version, while not identical to its earlier incarnation, nevertheless adhered to the same basic premise: that sex should not determine the legal rights of both men and women. The meaning of this underlying principle underwent tremendous change as the nature and focus of the women’s movement evolved during the 1960s. Unfortunately, the inability to carefully lay out a definite strategy to promote the proposed amendment helps explain why it ultimately failed to be ratified in the required 38 states.

The group most directly responsible for the development of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1920s was the National Woman’s Party (NWP), which was formed by Alice Paul. On the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Woman’s

Rights Convention, Paul introduced the first incarnation of the Equal Rights Amendment which read: “Men and woman shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The Equal Rights Amendment was to be a vehicle for advancing women’s rights beyond those already achieved with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which had given women the right to vote. The National Woman’s Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment in order to draw attention to and eliminate the many inequalities that still deprived women of equal treatment in the eyes of the law and in society.

The National Woman’s Party, as well as professional women and intellectuals, strongly supported the proposed amendment. However, support among women for the amendment was not universal. There was a split with some women’s groups which feared that the labor laws that had been enacted to protect women would be jeopardized by the Equal Rights Amendment. These reformers were not about to give up three decades of hard-won social and labor legislation aimed at protecting working women. Many strong women leaders on the left were openly suspicious because to them the Equal Rights Amendment seemed to benefit professional women at the expense of wage-earning women. There was also open opposition by wageearning women even in the early 1940s, when both the Republican and Democratic parties added their support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The civil rights movements of the 1960s fostered the second strong wave of political activism on the part of women in this century; this time women made equality, not suffrage, the central symbol of their struggle. Leading the way was the National Organization for Women (NOW). The intervening years had seen a radical shift in the support base of the Equal Rights Amendment. Wage-earning women who had at first opposed the Equal Rights Amendment now came to embrace it. This change of support reflected the changing political and economic atmosphere within the country. During the first half of the century, the disparity in the treatment of women ranging from long working hours and low wages required that women be protected through a series of gender-specific legislation. However, with the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, new and more powerful forms of protection supplanted the older protective laws. This, coupled with new economic opportunities, gave women wage-earners an incentive for promoting the Equal Rights Amendment. This was primarily due to the fact that this period marked the first time it was economically possible for a full-time employed woman to support herself and two children.

Outside the women’s movement, opposition to the amendment ranged from strong to openly hostile, and it was always better organized and financed. Phyllis Schlafly led intense opposition based on the same fears that had once been generated to oppose women’s suffrage. The opposition claimed that the Equal Rights Amendment would deny a woman’s right to be supported by her husband, privacy rights would be overturned, women would be sent into combat, and abortion rights and homosexual marriages would be upheld. Intense opposition on these grounds from various conservative religious and political organizations effectively brought the Amendment’s ratification to a standstill.

The Equal Rights Amendment came very close to being adopted. Within a year of Senate approval, 30 state legislatures ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and by 1977 the number had risen to 35. The states that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment were primarily in the south and the Rocky Mountain regions of the country. The only non-Equal Rights Amendment state outside these regions, Illinois was the site of a titanic struggle in the early part of the 1980s. Ultimately it, too, failed to approve the proposed amendment. Even if Illinois had approved it, the chance of it being adopted in two of the remaining fourteen states was remote at best.

The inability to respond effectively to the criticism or to establish the necessary grass-roots programs to promote the Amendment were the two main reasons the Equal Rights Amendment was not ratified. These reasons, however, should provide a lesson to any future incarnation of the Equal Rights Amendment because, whatever its failings, the Equal Rights Amendment succeeded in fostering discussion on legal and social concerns relating to women’s status as full and equal citizens.

SEE ALSO: Discrimination, Sexual harassment, United States Civil Rights Act of 1964

Suggested Reading

  • Berry, M. F. (1986). Why Equal Rights Amendment failed: Politics, women’s rights and the amending process of the Constitution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Hoff-Wilson, J. (Ed.). (1986). Rights of passage: The past and future of the Equal Rights Amendment. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Mansbridge, J. J. (1986). Why we lost the Equal Rights Amendment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Mathews, D. G., & De Heart, J. S. (1991). Sex, gender, and the politics of Equal Rights Amendment: A state and the nation. New York: Oxford University Press.

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  • Women finally achieved the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1980s

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