On December 9, 1972, “I Am Woman,” written and recorded by Helen Reddy, topped the Billboard 100 chart. The song spoke to a generation of women inspired by Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique to tackle “the problem that has no name.” The song reached the top of the charts less than a year after Congress sent the Equal Rights Amendment to the states for ratification. Public opinion polls at the time suggested a majority of Americans supported the amendment. Women’s rights activists believed their long-hard fight for equality soon would be easier – state legislatures would surely approve the ERA. Few expected other women would stop the amendment’s ratification.
Reddy captured the mentality of women who no longer wanted to “pretend” second-class status was acceptable. Her lyrics dovetailed with the concerns raised in The Feminine Mystique. Increasingly women spoke publicly about gender discrimination, or they joined conscious raising sessions to explore the possibilities for social and cultural change. In 1966, long-time activists founded the National Organization for Women to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society…exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” The organization, along with several other lesser-known but equally vocal groups, saw the ERA as a linchpin of their efforts to secure access to better jobs, better housing, and better opportunities. Several years of aggressive lobbying paid off when Congress approved the ERA by an overwhelming majority in 1972.
While NOW brought together women who supported the ERA, a grassroots movement of women opposing the ERA emerged. The STOP ERA campaign raised doubts about the implications of the amendment. Although it had appeared a majority of Americans supported equal rights, the social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s caused a reassessment of the country’s post-WWII commitment to liberalism. The New Right used the ERA to demonstrate how liberalism had run amok. Support for the ERA decreased in the 1970s, which in turn stalled the ratification process. By 1980, the Republican Party felt comfortable refusing to endorse the amendment. By 1982, it became clear proponents of ERA could not garner support in an additional four states to secure ratification. Questions about women’s role in private and public life then became part of the nation’s culture wars, which have been raging since the late 1980s.
Given the momentum of the feminist movement in the 1960s, the derailment of the ERA seemed surprising. However, its roots lay buried in the complexities of women’s activism – women have rarely agreed on how best to protect their interests because not all women have shared the same goals. Throughout the twentieth century, class divisions plagued women’s activists. Middle and upper class women focused more on access to political power – first with the voting rights amendment and later with the equal rights amendment. Working class women concentrated more on economic issues – specifically retaining laws protecting women in the workplace. The Progressive Era effort to set maximum working hours and improve working conditions for women proved beneficial to female workers at a time when organized labor largely marginalized their interests. Unfortunately, the legislation sanctioned greater gender inequality in the law. Until the 1960s, the issue made it difficult for women’s rights activists to speak with one voice on combatting gender inequality.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened the legal status of protective legislation, which made it possible for women’s activists temporarily to bridge their class divisions. The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor finally endorsed the ERA in 1970, which in turn gave activists greater leverage in pressuring members of Congress to support the amendment. Even still, not all women saw the ERA as a solution to gender bias. Myra Wolfgang, a leader in the labor movement, recognized discrimination in the workplace as a real problem but she thought the sweeping nature of the ERA would not address the problem. She preferred “to fight for positive measures such as equal pay for equal work and equal employment opportunities.” Moreover, not all women believed gender inequality was a serious issue. Phyllis Schlafly, the force behind STOP ERA, said “the claim that American women are downtrodden and unfairly treated is the fraud of the century.” She saw no need for women to give up “the status of special privilege.”
“I Am Women” peaked on the charts at a time when the feminist movement was on the cusp of a great victory that never came to fruition. In 1972, Reddy sang of wisdom born of pain, but also perseverance in the face of odds. In 2013, Katy Perry’s “Roar” sounded similar themes about the need for women to stand up for themselves. Women have continued their efforts to address all forms of inequality, and the lives of American women have changed dramatically in the forty years between when Reddy’s anthem and Perry’s anthem topped the charts. However, women still face the reality of gender discrimination too often. A recent study by the Council of Economic Advisers highlighted both the pay and compensation gap women face during their careers. The ERA, reintroduced as the Women’s Equality Amendment in 2007, is no closer to passing than when the amendment died in 1982. At the same time, it is worth considering why with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 such inequality still exists.