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Is it time to pass the ERA?

Proponents reignite their 95-year battle to see amendment ratified

Created date

January 2nd, 2018
Women protest the ERA in the Florida legislature, where it failed to pass, in 1979.

Women protest the ERA in the Florida legislature, where it failed to pass, in 1979.

On Aug. 26, 1920, women gained the right to vote when the 19th amendment became the law of the land. 

For the suffragists who had been fighting for a woman’s right to vote, it was a sweet victory but hardly the end of their 72-year battle for equality. They set their sights on a new goal—passing what they called the Lucretia Mott Amendment in honor of a nineteenth-century women’s rights activist. 

Just 18 words long, it said, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

Many believed that their toughest fight, gaining the right to vote, was behind them and that passing this relatively pithy amendment would be much easier.  

That was 95 years ago, and what is now called the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) remains unratified. 

Early opposition

The initial opposition to the ERA came from a surprising source. Early in the twentieth century, labor unions had worked hard to gain legal protection for women workers.   

Unions and the working class feared that making women equal under the law would jeopardize the strength of those hard-fought-for labor laws, so they opposed the ERA. 

Middle-class women, most of whom did not work outside the home, generally supported the ERA. 

By the 1940s, both of the major political parties had endorsed the ERA, but labor unions steadfastly held on to their opposition. At about the same time, social conservatives, fearing an upheaval of the existing power structure, also opposed the amendment. 

In 1953, proponents tried to appease the unions by adding verbiage stating that existing laws protecting women would not be negated by the amendment. This made the ERA more appealing to the unions, but many ERA supporters believed it watered down the amendment. In the end, the amended amendment passed the Senate but failed to make it out of the House. 

Momentum

Buoyed by the momentum of the civil rights movement, the campaign to pass the ERA gained strength in the late 1960s.

With the support of labor unions, the ERA made its way through Congress and on March 22, 1972, the proposed 27th amendment was sent to the states for ratification. Congress gave the ratification process a seven-year deadline.

Twenty-two states ratified it within the first year. And 12 additional ratifications followed…but then some states rescinded their earlier ratification of the ERA. 

With the March 22, 1979, deadline looming, not enough states had ratified the amendment. Even after Congress extended the deadline to June 30, 1982, the amendment failed to gain 38 state ratifications. 

Opposition

Through much of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the ERA’s resolute opponent was longtime conservative activist and leader of STOP ERA Phyllis Schlafly. 

Schlafly and other opponents believed that the ERA would negatively impact institutions like same-sex schools and give the federal government more power while taking away power from the states. 

While proponents of the ERA believe it will help eliminate the well-documented wage gap between men and women, opponents like Schlafly didn’t see the wage gap as an issue. In 2015 she said, “Newsflash: one reason a woman gets married is to be supported by her husband while caring for her children at home. So long as her husband earns a good income, she doesn’t care about the pay gap between them.”

Schlafly died in 2016, but her organization Eagle Forum continues to advocate against the ERA.

Supporters

ERA supporters believe the amendment secures a fundamental legal remedy against sex discrimination for both women and men. They say it would guarantee that all citizens hold the rights affirmed by the U.S. Constitution equally regardless of their gender. 

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 2014, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “If I could choose an amendment to add to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment.…I think we have achieved that through legislation, but legislation can be repealed, it can be altered.…So I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion—that women and men are persons of equal stature—I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.” 

Recent developments

Efforts to further extend the ERA deadline have repeatedly been introduced in Congress to little effect…until recently.

In March 2017, the Nevada state legislature ratified the ERA, making it the 36th state to do so. Despite the fact that the deadline has long passed, the Nevada ratification gave ERA supporters new energy.  

Many are hopeful that now is the right time for ratification. As for the deadline, history has shown that amendments can take a long time. In 1992, the 27th Amendment prohibiting immediate congressional pay increases was ratified after 203 years.


Where do you stand on the Equal Rights Amendment? Tell us in comments below.

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