The Return of the Equal Rights Amendment
By Sarah Katherine Mergel, Bread and Circus contributing writer
Back in April, as I was preparing to teach a class on the women’s movement in the Sixties and Seventies, a colleague asked if I had heard that the Equal Rights Amendment had resurfaced in Congress. (I, of course, had not). Apparently on March 27, 2007, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (NY) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (MA) introduced the Women’s Equality Amendment (H.J. Res. 40/S.J. Res. 10). Section 1 declares “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Section 2 gives Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the amendment. Both mirrored the wording of the original ERA. The House and Senate subsequently referred the proposed amendment to their respective judiciary committees where no further action has been taken. Should Congress vote in favor of sending the WEA to the states, ratification by three more states might make it the next amendment to the Constitution. (See note 1 below)
When the ERA sailed through both houses of Congress in 1972 it seemed to members of the women’s rights movement that their long-hard fought for equality would soon be made easier-the states were sure to ratify it. Few expected that the amendment would be undone by other women, but it was. As grassroots campaigns emerged in key states, legislators began to withdraw their support. After ten years the ERA failed to receive backing by enough states to add it to the Constitution. Public opinion polls at the time suggested that a majority of Americans supported equal rights making the amendments defeat all the more confusing to members of the women’s rights movement.
The Democratic sponsors of the “new” amendment hope that the time has come to move forward with gender equality. Proponents have reintroduced the measure before, but now feel they have a better chance at getting the two-thirds votes necessary to see it move back to the states. Opponents still maintain that the amendment will add nothing to the present laws of the country and remain confident that no additional states will ratify the amendment. Given that the Women’s Equality Amendment is likely to spark some heated debate when and if Congress votes on it, I thought it might be a good time to look at both the history of the amendment and its relationship more generally to the women’s rights movement.
In the nineteenth century, the feminist movement began to advocate for the political equality of women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other women sought to make their political voice heard. Women tried to demonstrate they could move beyond their roles as good wives and mothers although they had little success in securing voting rights. These early feminists passed the torch to Alice Paul whose experience with the more radical women’s rights movement in England caused her to take a more aggressive approach in pushing for suffrage. Members of the National Women’s Party risked respectability to garner women’s rights. Paul’s favorite tactic was to picket the White House. The move was especially effective during World War I when Woodrow Wilson had turned the war into a crusade for democracy. Once Wilson agreed to support the suffrage cause, Congress voted in favor of the 19th amendment and the states quickly ratified it.
While Paul and the NWP fought for suffrage other women during the progressive era had different goals-primarily better working conditions. Members of the progressive movement, like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley thought protective legislation would bring moral uplift to the working class. Working class women, although somewhat concerned about potential financial impact of the proposed legislation, came to support laws that would improve their working conditions and limit their hours. They also saw protective legislation as a substitute for union activity (which the heads of the largest unions often excluded them from).
Protective legislation caused a rift among women in the women’s movement. Working class women supported suffrage, but feared the Equal Rights Amendment proposed by Paul in 1923. The amendment, they thought, would bring an end to protective legislation because it would make women and men equal in the eyes of management. The hours men were expected to work, women too would have to work. Working class women in the 1920s could not actually conceive of a time when industry would agree to reduced hours for all workers. (See note 2).
While Congress seemed reluctant to support the ERA, the number of women in the workforce increased in the 1920s because the decade’s consumerism. Vacuum cleaners and automobiles cost money-money that a one-wage earner family could not afford so more middle-class women sought jobs. They often took white-collar service related positions. During the Great Depression fewer women worked, but that could be said of men too. However as soon as the nation began to mobilize for war in the 1940s the rate of single and married women in the work force rose steadily. Working women pushed for equal pay for equal work, but the war’s end lessened their bargaining power in the workplace. In the 1950s even more middle-class and college educated women joined the workforce. At the same time, married women began to experience changes in their home life. As relationships became more reciprocal, some married women began to wonder why they had accepted the traditional role for so long.
Much to the dismay of women’s rights advocates, John F. Kennedy did not endorse the ERA in his 1960 platform-he was the first Democratic candidate not to do so since 1944. Once in office, he appointed a commission to study the status of women. Women’s rights advocates, especially the NWP, could not prevent the administration from stacking the commission with members who opposed the ERA. It came as no surprise then to members of the NWP when the commission suggested that an equal rights amendment was not necessary (at least not necessary in the early 1960s). The introduction of the Equal Pay Bill, which passed through Congress in 1963, followed on the heels of the commission’s work. The Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau had been a strong supported of the ideas represented in the bill since 1945; however, the NWP thought the bill merely distracted from the more important goal of securing the passage of the ERA. The bill had flaws, but it did commit the government to the cause of ending gender discrimination. A year later Title VII of the Civil Rights Bill prohibited gender discrimination in the workplace. Regardless of how it got into the bill, the women’s rights movement saw it as another step towards equality.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique proved to be the spark that ignited the new, more aggressive, women’s movement in the late 1960s. The founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 provided a place for women from various backgrounds to join in the fight for women’s equality. Longtime feminists joined with members of the labor movement in a common cause-something that had been hard to do in the past. The new organization gave women a collective identity, which for longtime activists seemed an important step to achieving the goal of equality for women. NOW added its support to the ERA, at the urging of Alice Paul, and quickly became the most vocal proponent of the measure (much to the NWP’s dismay). However, what seemed to be more important in the ultimate Congressional acceptance of the ERA was Title VII. The Civil Rights Act undermined protective legislation. Women associated with the labor movement felt they could finally support ERA-the Women’s Bureau endorsed it for the first time in 1970.
Just as NOW brought together women who supported the ERA, a grass roots movement of women opposing the ERA emerged in the early 1970s. Phyllis Schlafly, who led the STOP ERA campaign, had shown no interest in the ERA until 1971 when she was asked to debate the issue. Schlafly and her followers successfully raised doubts about what the amendment might do ultimately slowing down its momentum. As much as it appeared in 1972 that a majority of the population supported equal rights, the US in 1972 was a different place than it had been several years before when NOW was founded. The social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s caused some Americans to rethink the country’s post-WWII commitment to liberalism. The New Right of the 1970s used the ERA as just one of the ways to demonstrate how liberalism had run amok. Support for the ERA decreased in the 1970s. By 1980, the Republican Party felt comfortable refusing to endorse the amendment. By 1982 it became clear that proponents of ERA could not garner enough support to secure ratification.
The thing that most people forget about the women’s rights movement is that even members of the movement have not always been on the same page about what constitutes the best course of action for promoting women’s interests. Middle and upper-class women had different goals than working class women even before women gained the right to vote. Even women in the same class did not agree on the question of voting rights. For example, Julia Ward Howe concluded that suffrage increase the dignity of women, but Emily P. Bissell thought giving women the right to vote was a reform against nature. (See note 3) The same was true for the ERA. Members of NOW assumed that no woman in her right mind would oppose equality, but the STOP ERA campaign proved otherwise. Moreover, although labor supported the ERA after Title VII there was still some concern that the amendment would harm working-class women. Myra Wolfgang, a leader in the labor movement, recognized discrimination in the workplace as a real problem; however, she did not think the ERA would solve the problem because it was too sweeping. (See note 4)
So where does this little review of the history of the women’s movement and ERA leave us? First, I think, it remains important to recognize that the question of gender discrimination and equal rights is complicated and there is more to the debate than just being for or against the ERA. Just because someone-man or women-does not support the ERA, does not mean they are for gender discrimination. Second, even without an ERA women have made progress towards equality. Title VII may not be perfect, but it is something. As a Ph.D. student I worked part-time in retail unloading new merchandise off incoming trucks. I never sensed any hesitation by my co-workers to throw heavy boxes my way-and to think fifty years ago I probably would not have gotten the job.
The debate over the ERA is likely to continue in the future, whether it passes this time or not. If it does not proponents of gender equality will find new ways to fight; if it does the government and the courts will begin debates on how to enforce the law. So as you look to the future of this important question, remember it has a past, too.
Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.
Notes– The courts will ultimately determine whether the states that originally ratified the ERA will have to vote again. Some legal scholars think that the original votes are valid because the Madison Amendment affecting congressional pay raises became the 27th amendment after 203 years. See Juliet Eilperin, “New Drive Afoot to Pass Equal Rights Amendment,” Washington Post, March 27, 2007, A01, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/27/AR2007032702357.html. Only the crisis of unemployment in the Great Depression forced employers to accept the standard eight-hour day. Julia Ward Howe, “The Case for Woman Suffrage,” Outlook (April 3, 1900); Emily P. Bissell, “A Talk to Women on the Suffrage Question,” in Selected Articles on Woman Suffrage, 3rdst Congress, 2nd session, May 6, 1970.Images– (Top) Women’s Suffrage Day in Fountain Square, August 1973. EPA photograph by Tom Hibbard in the collection of the NAtional Archives and Records Administration; (Below) US. Government Poster, Office for Emergency Management, World War II era.For More Information– edition, (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1916). Myra Wolfgang, Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Committee on the Judiciary, 91
- Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: The History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (1982)
- Elizabeth Pleck, “Failed Strategies, Renewed Hope,” in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA edited by Joan Hoff-Wilson (1986)
- Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (1987).