From Victory to Defeat: The Equal Rights Amendment

Women Divide Over The Equal Rights AmendmentWomen Divide Over The Equal Rights Amendment (Photo: Digital Public Library of America)

On March 22, 1972, members of the increasingly vocal women’s movement celebrated the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that, per Congress, had seven years to be ratified. The proposed amendment stated “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Effectively lobbying by women’s right organizations led to large margins in both chambers of Congress in favor of the amendment to bar gender discrimination. As states quickly began to ratify the amendment, many American women looked forward to a future marked by greater equality. But their hopes were misplaced. After ten years, the ERA failed to receive backing by enough states to add it to the Constitution. How had an amendment that seemed to have wide support in public opinion polls gone down to defeat? The answer lay in part to a division among American women as to how the ERA would affect them—a division that predated the amendment’s passage through Congress.

The ERA had a long history. As far back as 1923, Alice Paul, the head of the National Women’s Party who had spearheaded an effort to secure passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, called on Congress and the American people to consider adding an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. Paul knew supporters of such an amendment faced a complicated fight, but she believed “there is nothing complicated about equality.” Congress, an almost exclusively male body, ignored the suggested addition for years. However, opposition to an equal rights amendment also came from working class women. Fearing an ERA would undermine protective legislation, such as a reduced workday for women (when the standard workday ran ten to twelve hours), working women gave limited support to the idea. Without a unified voice, even with greater political power stemming from the Nineteenth Amendment, women in favor of an ERA failed to attract significant backing for the legislation.

Things began to change after WWII. More women entered the workforce as men mobilized for World War II, and the demands of the postwar consumer culture made two salaries necessary for families. By the early 1960s, the pay gap between male and female workers took center stage. In 1963, at the urging of the Kennedy administration, Congress approved the Equal Pay Act, marking a significant step forward for women’s rights. Still, middle and working class women could not agree about whether or not an ERA was necessary. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further underscored the shifting views about women in public life when the measure banned gender discrimination in the workplace. At the same time, the law undermined the validity of protective legislation for women.

In the 1960s, working-class women finally began to see the ERA as beneficial because, unlike laws passed by Congress, an amendment to the Constitution could not be undone. The founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 provided a place for women from various backgrounds to fight for a common cause. The organization gave women a collective identity—an important step to achieving equality. NOW, along with the National Women’s Party and the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, lobbied aggressively for the passage of the ERA when it went to the floor of Congress for a vote. When testifying in support of the ERA, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem noted that women had “routinely suffer[ed] humiliation and injustice” and had been denied the right to “think of themselves as first-class citizens” for too long. The Senate voted 84 to 8 in favor of the amendment and the public polled strongly in favor of equal rights, suggesting that the amendment would get ratified quickly. So sure of approval were they that supporters of the amendment had not really prepared any steps to secure victory. They were shocked to find that within two years, the drive to ratification slowed down precipitously.

This drag happened because the Sixties, with their consciousness about civil rights, awakened conservative segments of the population to what seemed to be the dangers of an overly active government. In their view, traditional values no longer held sway, and the equality amendment along with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 foretold of a dire future for the nation. These concerns manifested themselves in the Stop-ERA Campaign, led by Phyllis Schlafly. As a long-time conservative, Schlafly spent her early public career warning of the dangers of liberalism and communism. Initially she was not particularly interested in the ERA. After further study, though, she concluded the ERA was another sign of the dangers of liberalism. Furthermore, it countered her faith-based view in women’s subordination to men.

Believing women had a place of “special privilege,” in American society, Schlafly questioned why women would “lower” themselves “to equal rights.” She spoke frequently about the “fraud” of the ERA. She also predicted women would be subject to the draft, alimony payments would no longer be standard in divorce settlements, and unisex toilets would become a reality. Her Stop-ERA campaign did not shift the public’s opinion about treating women more equitably, but it did cast doubt about the implications of the amendment. Uncertainty about its effects led to a significant decline in support for ratification. Supporters of the amendment increasingly found themselves trying to explain how the amendment would help women, not harm them.

After the allotted seven years, the ERA had passed in only thirty-five states. It needed three more to take effect. Congress then granted a three-year extension to secure ratification, and yet, no additional state approved the amendment. Still, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the debates surrounding its possible impact, did not disappear in 1982 when the extended window for ratification lapsed.

In the midst of the nation’s culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s, the role of women in America continued to be hotly contested. Members of Congress have repeatedly reintroduced the ERA since 1982. They even tried reframing the debate by calling it the Women’s Equality Amendment in 2007. As Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), a vocal supporter of the amendment, said in 2011, “We cannot ensure that women will be free of discrimination… as long as women are not universally defended under our Constitution…the equal rights of women are subject to interpretation of law.” Women today do have the protection of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but questions of gender inequality remain as pervasive in American life today as they did on March 22, 1972.

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

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