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Leslie W. Gladstone, retired, Congressional Research Service
Note: This guide is adapted from the original essay in "American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States," 2001.
Created: December 2001
Last Updated: March 22, 2019
At a National Organization for Women (NOW) rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on June 30, 1982, NOW president Eleanor Smeal rallied an estimated two thousand supporters, including seven hundred nurses in town for the American Nurses Association convention.1 Although they were there that day mourning the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Smeal urged them not to forget that “We are a majority. We are determined to play majority politics . . . . We are not going to be reduced again to the ladies' auxiliary.”2
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, outside the Civic Center, about one thousand women counted down the ERA's last six hours, a rain-soaked vigil that was reported, filmed, and recorded by many women journalists and technicians.3
That same night, at a party in a Washington, D.C., hotel, the ERA's demise was celebrated by opponents, fourteen hundred strong, as “a great victory for women.”4 The Washington Post account of that evening describes the entrance into the ballroom of the leader of the ERA opposition, Phyllis Schlafly, as the band played “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” During the festivities, the crowd was entertained with renditions of “Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” Triumphantly addressing the crowd, Schlafly called for “a mighty movement” that will “set America on the right path.”5
What caused the rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment? Why the intense emotions that caused ERA proponents to write the names of opponents in pigs' blood on the floors of the Illinois state capitol or opponents to pronounce apocalyptically that if the amendment was ratified husbands would no longer have to support their wives, that women would be drafted, and that toilets would be made unisex? What, if any, was the legacy of the often bitter ratification campaign that divided American women for nearly a decade beginning in 1972?
The proposed Equal Rights Amendment, only fifty-one words in length, was contentious from its inception. In a form suggested by Alice Paul, a constitutional amendment was first introduced in 1923—only three years after the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote—unleashing sixty or more years of national debate. (For a discussion of records of women's rights organizations from this era that are held by the Manuscript Division, see Women's Rights in the Manuscript Division section.)
Paul was a militant leader in the suffrage movement. She founded the National Woman's Party, and for fifty years served as a tactician for the ERA. (See Women's Suffrage: Suffrage Organizations in the Manuscript Division section.) Her original wording, drafted in 1923, has been changed several times, but the text submitted to the states for ratification in 1972 is essentially hers:
Sec. 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.
Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”6
Almost immediately in 1923, a split developed between the more militant feminists whose goal was full equality under the Constitution and the social reformers and organized labor who feared that the amendment would be used to strike down laws that they had secured to protect women in the workplace. (See "Protective Legislation" in the Law Library section and Labor and "Progressive Reform" in the Manuscript Division section.)
Opposition to the ERA began to dissipate somewhat in the 1930s. Roosevelt's New Deal enacted social welfare laws that regulated wages and hours and instituted fair labor standards for both male and female workers, rendering protective laws less necessary. Yet the split continued, because certain groups—such as agricultural workers and domestics, areas where women workers concentrated—were still exempted from these standards.7 According to Cynthia Harrison, “between 1945 and 1960, the proponents of the ERA and the defenders of protective labor legislation would not reconcile their views, based as they were in opposite philosophies of women's needs.”8 The liberal-labor coalition's concerns about the threat to protective legislation were not finally removed until passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when a high volume of sex discrimination complaints and suits confirmed the argument that protective labor laws acted as a limitation on women's employment opportunities (see "Civil Rights" in the Law Library American Women guide).9
In the 1960s, the period generally referred to as the second women's rights movement began with John F. Kennedy's appointment of the first President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt [picture]. The work of this and other early commissions successfully focused public attention on a broad range of initiatives designed to address the unequal position of American women, both under U.S. law and in customary practice, issues which also found expression in numerous women's rights demonstrations.10
According to Marguerite Rawalt, the only pro-ERA appointee, the creation of the PCSW, consisting almost entirely of women who still opposed the ERA, was intended to forestall consideration of the amendment. Labor's continued opposition to the ERA made it a politically risky issue for a Democratic president. Recollections of differences in perspectives and values between such commissioners as Rawalt, who at the time was president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, and Esther Peterson [picture], the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration as director of the Women's Bureau and an assistant secretary of labor, can be heard on National Public Radio's 1981 program “The ERA in America.”11
It has been argued that many of this first presidential commission's accomplishments were long-range. One was to make discussion of women's roles and status respectable and to give women's issues a prominent place on the national political agenda for the first time since ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.12 Possibly the most divisive issue for the commission, however, was the problem of how to achieve constitutional equality for women. After receiving divergent views from national women's organizations and labor union groups, the commission declared that equality of rights for all persons is embodied in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and recommended that prompt judicial clarification of this principle be sought from the Supreme Court, which could confer equal rights to women by interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause to give sex the same “suspect” test as race and national origin.13 It also found that an equal rights amendment “need not now be sought,” but protective legislation for women should be maintained and expanded.14 (To read the full text of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, follow the links to the National Archives and Records Administration Web site under “The Long Road to Equality” on the Topical Essays External Sites page.)
“When would the government act?” was the activists' question, and “Now” became the mantra. Outraged by the refusal of the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prosecute job discrimination cases on the basis of sex through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Marguerite Rawalt, Betty Friedan [picture], and others founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. Passage of the ERA was its first agenda item.15 Four years later, on July 20, 1970, Representative Martha Griffiths, a Democrat from Michigan, collected enough signatures for a discharge petition, by-passing veteran House Judiciary Committee chair Emanuel Celler [picture], a liberal Democrat from New York with strong labor ties who had refused to hold hearings on the ERA for two decades.16 Opening House hearings on the amendment on August 10, Griffiths pleaded, “Give us a chance to show you that those so-called protective laws to aid women—however well intentioned originally—have become in fact restraints, which keep wife, abandoned wife, and widow alike from supporting her family.”17
Approved by 352-15 in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971, the amendment moved to the Senate, where Senator Sam Ervin [picture], a Democrat from North Carolina and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was its chief opponent. A strict constitutionalist, Ervin in fact attacked the amendment on the basis of traditional views of gender.18 Much anti-ERA literature subsequently was based on Ervin's public statements.19 Despite continued opposition of some segments of organized labor, the ERA was passed by the Senate on March 22, 1972, and it was submitted to the states for ratification.20
In the years between 1972 and 1977, the federal amendment proposing equal rights for women was considered by the legislatures of every state, in some cases more than once, and thirty-five of them ratified it.21 In addition, between 1971 and 1978, fifteen states adopted equal rights amendments to their own constitutions, providing a legal basis for equal treatment to women in those jurisdictions. These served to demonstrate the protections that such an amendment could provide and as an argument for passage of a federal amendment. At the same time, other states began making changes in their laws to eliminate distinctions that unfairly precluded women from receiving equal treatment.
One problem encountered early in the ratification campaign was the portrayal of women and women's rights by the press generally, which seemed to enjoy making them subjects of heavy-handed jokes. When Gloria Steinem was invited to speak at a National Press Club luncheon in January 1972, a short time after the club had agreed to admit women journalists, she used the occasion to take up not only the serious issues of feminism and the ERA but also the crippling effect for both sexes of a male-dominated vision of the world. A tape of the session, held in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS), records her comments on the way men tended to assume that they represented the norm, so that when the press presented issues important to the lives of women, reporters seldom found it necessary to seek out women as sources.22 As an example she cited a recent story on abortion in which the interviewees consisted of a number of men, plus one nun. Conservative women, on the other hand, particularly Schlafly, were convinced that the “liberal” press was on the side of the ERA. Other interviews illustrating the flavor of the debate over the ERA, also available in MBRS, are those with Gloria Steinem and Jill Ruckelshaus, both active in the ratification campaign, on Meet the Press, September 10, 1972 (RWC 7731 B2); and with Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, also on Meet the Press, November 20, 1977 (LWO 15563 1-2), and at the National Press Club, June 25, 1981 (RXA 1902 B).
Scholars have speculated about the causes of the dramatic slowing in the ratification process that followed the first three months of 1973. It has been suggested that the Supreme Court's decision on abortion in Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973, coupled with nationwide admiration for Senator Sam Ervin's chairmanship of the Senate Watergate hearings [picture] that began in May, made ERA proponents' task much harder. Decriminalization of abortion angered fundamentalists and social conservatives, and Ervin, leader of the Senate opposition to the ERA since 1969 and now seen as a savior of the Constitution, became their champion in the southern states that refused to ratify the ERA.23
Preparations for International Women's Year and its culminating event, the National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977, infused the ERA ratification effort with new energy. And just in time, for not only had ratification slowed markedly but five states had voted to rescind their previous ratifications.24 The designation of 1975 as International Women's Year (IWY), a United Nations initiative, had come in response to the rising demand for women's rights, not only in the United States, but around the world.25
The agenda for the national conference consisted of twenty-six items nominated for action by the state groups. The preceding year was spent researching and surveying particular aspects of gender discrimination, and 115 suggestions for remedial action were submitted to the president.26 Included were recommendations on issues such as employment, reproductive freedom, the legal status of homemakers, rape, the media, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. All twenty-six agenda items were approved, but the only one totally unchanged by the delegates to the National Conference was the one that stated, “The Equal Rights Amendment should be ratified.”
Many more socially conservative women were politicized by the Houston conference. Shocked by the delegates' overwhelming support for the ERA, gay rights, federal funding of abortion, government-sponsored child care, and contraception for minors without parental consent, all advocated in the name of “women's rights,” they were also angered that this “feminist” convention was supported by taxpayers.27 A privately funded opposition rally in Houston was held by Schlafly and her Stop ERA and Eagle Forum organizations. The ERA campaign was denounced as an assault on the family and on the role of women as wives and mothers.28
An important offshoot of the IWY national conference was a new organization named ERAmerica, whose records are held by the Manuscript Division (see "Women's Rights" in the Manuscript Division section).29 Created at the request of a number of nongovernmental groups, ERAmerica was set up as a private national campaign organization. Its role was to direct the final months of the ratification drive in the fifteen remaining unratified states. Throughout this ratification effort, ERAmerica worked with more than two hundred participating organizations. They:
In this way, ERAmerica and allied groups became agents for the hands-on engagement of numerous activist women with the nuts and bolts of political campaigning and with the political process at the state and local level.
The records of ERAmerica are a rich source of detail on the way much of the political training of pro-ERA volunteers was accomplished. Since ERAmerica could pay only a handful of professional staff, it was necessary to recruit volunteers from organizations within the targeted states, and these people represented a broad spectrum of backgrounds and interests.30
By the same token, the anti-ERA effort had a strong educational value for conservative women, many of whom became effective lobbyists for their points of view. As the Reverend Jerry Falwell remarked the day after the ERA died, “Phyllis has succeeded in doing something nobody has ever done . . . She's mobilized the conservative women of this country into a powerful political unit.”31
At the national level, the case for passage of the amendment was carried to the general public by magazine articles in such publications as Women's Day and Working Women. These stories discussed issues like:
Also cited in the ERAmerica records was a speakers bureau organized for radio, television, and personal appearances by well-known figures like presidential daughter Maureen Reagan, White House press secretary Liz Carpenter, humor columnist Erma Bombeck, actors Alan Alda, Polly Bergen, and others who could attract an audience and articulate the rationale for improving the status of women.
Although the amendment was ratified by thirty-five states, it did not gain approval of the necessary three-fourths or thirty-eight states before the 1982 deadline.
There is no question, however, that public opinion regarding the need for change was substantially altered by the years of debate. Surveys taken by Louis Harris and by the Roper Organization from 1970 through 1985 show steadily growing support for strengthening the status of women.33 The shift in viewpoints over time are reflected in differing answers to the question, “Do you favor most of the efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society today? ” At the beginning of the 1970s, 40 percent of women and 44 percent of men who responded approved the idea. Fifteen years later in 1985, 73 percent of women and 69 percent of men favored such changes.
Out of the gradual shift in public opinion, legislative gains followed, and a significant number of women's rights measures were passed in this period. Between the 92nd Congress, beginning in 1971, and the 95th Congress, ending in 1978, ten statutes were enacted prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex with regard to education, employment, credit, and housing, more than during any other period in the history of the Congress.34 Other legislation focused on women's interests has been enacted in the years following.
Since the 1980s, with the major civil rights statutes in place, other legislative gains have included measures to:
The Supreme Court of the United States also revealed an awareness of the ratification arguments and, in the 1970s and 1980s, moved toward a more rigorous standard of review in sex discrimination cases, although it fell short of applying the “suspect” category test it applied to race and national origin. The papers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in this period argued many landmark women's rights cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, are held in the Manuscript Division (see "Women Justices, Judges, and Attorneys" in the Manuscript Division section).35 Copies of the final Supreme Court opinions (or decisions), records, and briefs can be found in the Law Library.
Between 1970 and 1990, the number of women winning elective offices increased markedly, and their influence was significant in promoting legislation supportive of women's interests.36 The number of women mayors in cities with populations over 30,000 increased from 1.6 percent in 1973 to 18 percent in 1993.
In the same period, women in state legislatures grew from 5.6 percent to 20.4 percent, women in the U.S. House of Representatives went from 3.7 percent to 10.8 percent, and women senators from zero to 6 percent.
Other women established “firsts” as candidates. Shirley Chisholm [picture] was the first African American woman to run for president in 1972 and Patricia Schroeder ran in 1988. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated by a national party for vice president in 1984.
The importance of electing women to office at all levels is best revealed in the pattern that women officeholders established early on. Many of these women from both parties have tended to promote legislation having an impact on the lives of women, children, and families, in areas such as health, welfare, and education. Many others have supported women's rights generally.37 Moreover, the influence of elected women has changed over time as their numbers have increased, and they have proved equally effective as men at securing passage of their legislative priorities. One notable woman legislator whose congressional career spanned two distinct periods, from 1965 to 1977, and again from 1990 to 2002, was Hawaii Representative Patsy T. Mink, whose personal papers in the Manuscript Division reflect not only her steadfast commitment to women's issues but the changing nature of women's political influence (see "Women Members" in the Manuscript Division section).
In the end, change over these years came from many quarters and for many reasons. The long public debate over the status of women and the call for a constitutional amendment heightened expectations that changes would be made, and changes did follow.
Women at the grass-roots level joined together in examining problems believed by some to have been caused by gender discrimination and women's less-than-equal status. They reached out for new solutions. Inevitably women on both sides of the ERA question became involved in the political process and began learning how the levers of power are activated at different levels of government. The cumulative effect of all these forces stimulated a chain of elective, legislative, and judicial actions that made, and arguably continue to make, a positive contribution to substantive changes in women's status in this country.