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“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The above passage is the proposed amendment that has yet to be ratified; The amendment is better known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
On September 21, 1921, the National Women’s Party announced its plans to campaign for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee women equal rights with men. The amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1923, shortly after women in the United States were given the right to vote.
The Republican Party included support of the ERA beginning in 1940, renewing the suppot every four years until 1980. Surprisingly, the main support base for the ERA until the 1960s was middle-class Republican women. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, the Democrats included the ERA in its platform. But the Democratic Party did not become united in favor of the amendment until 1972.
The ERA was vehemently opposed by the American Federation of Labor and other labor unions. They feared that the amendment would invalidate protective labor legislation for women. Eleanor Roosevelt and most New Dealers also opposed the ERA. They felt that the ERA was designed for middle-class women, but that it was working-class women who needed government protection. The League of Women Voters also opposed the ERA until 1972, and they also feared the loss of protective labor legislation.
ERA supporters were hopeful that the second term of President Dwight D, Eisenhower would advance their agenda, Eisenhower had publicly promised to “ assure women everywhere in our land equality of rights.” In 1958, Eisenhower asked a joint session of Congress to pass the ERA. He was the first President to show any measure of support for the amendment. The National Women’s Party, asked for the amendment to be withdrawn. New language was added to the amendment, that negated the original purpose of the bill.
Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy announced his support for the ERA in a letter to the Chairman of the National Women’s Party in 1960. Later, when Kennedy was elected, he named Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor. Peterson publicly opposed the ERA, on the belief it would weaken protective labor legislation. Since Kennedy had ties to Labor Unions, it ultimately meant the ERA was not gaining any traction under Kennedy’s administration. Kennedy did appoint a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the problem of sex discrimination in America. The commission did help win passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The act banned sex discrimination in wages in numerous professions. The committee also secured an Executive order from Kennedy that eliminated sex discrimination in civil service,
A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The act banned workplace discrimination not only based on race, religion, or national origin but also based on sex. By the late 1960s, the National Organization of Women who supported the ERA had made significant political and legislative victories and was gaining enough power to become a lobbying force,
On August 10, 1970, Congresswomen Martha Griffiths successfully brought the ERA amendment to the House floor. However the 91st Congress ended before the bill could go any further, Griffiths reintroduced the bill the following year it passed the house and then it passed in the Senate. President Richard Nixon immediately endorsed the ERA’s approval upon its passage by Congress in 1972.
On March 22, 1972, the ERA was placed before the state legislatures, with a seven-year deadline to acquire ratification by ¾ (38) of the State legislatures. In 1972, 22 states ratified the amendment with eight more joining in 1973. Between 1974 and 1977, only five states approved the ERA. With the lack of movement, advocates become worried about whether the amendment would pass. Even worse news for the ERA advocates, four states who had ratified the amendment rescinded the ratification. It’s unclear whether states can do such a thing, but what was clear is that the ERA still lacked the 38 state total. Congress voted to extend the deadline from 1979 to 1982.
One of the reasons, The ERA was having trouble gaining traction with more states was because of the actions of activists like Phyllis Schlafly. She argued that the ERA would disadvantage homemakers. She also stated it would cause women to be drafted into the military and to lose alimony. Schlafly also argued that women would lose the ability to retain custody of their children after a divorce. A lot of conservative women believed Schlafly and her chatter, and they helped organize and fight in opposition to the amendment. Opposition to the amendment was particularly high among religious conservatives. They argued that the ERA would guarantee universal abortion rights and the right for homosexual couples to marry. In the end, the opposition was too much, and the ERA did not gain another state by the deadline. The Reagan Revolution was in full motion, and the country went conservative.
The amendment has been introduced in every Congressional session since 1982. It has yet to pass both houses. More recently, some positive news has happened to the ERA. Two states (Nevada and Illinois) have recently ratified the ERA. Because of the failure of the ERA passing, 25 states have passed state equal rights amendment laws. To this day, the ERA is still languishing, waiting to get adopted. Hopefully, one day, it will finally get passed.
Mistakes Were Made:
The failure of the ERA to be passed has a bit of an unforeseen consequences angle to it. Remember, Republican Women were the first to champion the amendment. After the actions of Schlafly and others, The Republican Party disowned and ran against the amendment. This reversal laid the seeds for these same Republican women to become dissatisfied and disillusioned with the Party. These voters turned to Clinton in the ’90s and later Obama in the 2000s. Short term victory, long term loss.
We are in the midst of the me too movement and a record number of sexual harassment claims. Imagine a world where employers stood firm on equal opportunity policies that provided a guideline for fair treatment? One of the many excuses for poorly written or unclear equal opportunity policies is that there is a general lack of understanding about what constitutes an appropriate workplace practice or the ethics behind such a decision. If the ERA amendment were passed, we would no longer need HR departments to provide proper guidelines to respect for cultural and gender differences. It would be outlined in the ERA amendment, which would be part of the constitution.
If you ask most people today, they would assume that the constitution would guarantee equal rights based on gender. That assumption would be false. Though protections under the 14th amendment and many state laws help rectify the problem, it’s a shame that the United States still has not passed the ERA. Equal protection based on gender is a foregone conclusion in today’s society, so what’s the hold up in ratifying the ERA?
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on November 4, 2019.