The Equal Rights Amendment: Then and Now — Sarah-Jane Stratford

This past March 22 marked the 41st year since the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the Senate and sent by President Nixon to the states for ratification. The Amendment fell short of ratification by three states in 1982. Granted, no one likes to make laws in haste, but this is an issue whose time came and never left.


Recent articles by such prominent writers as Katha Pollitt and Gail Collins discuss the ERA and make much of the fact that the arguments levied against it are no longer valid. The guardians of the status quo may be fighting to maintain their steadily loosening grip on supreme rule, but the march toward full equality over the past half-century is not the sort from which one looks back. Everyone who was shut out of the power structure has made tremendous gains, but this bill, which came so tantalizingly close to being law, still lingers.


This December will be the 90th anniversary of the ERA’s original introduction in Congress by the suffragist leader Alice Paul. In 1923, it was the next obvious step for women. They had been voting for three years and the earth’s rotation had yet to come to a screeching halt, so it seemed a good moment to press for full equality, writing women completely into the Constitution.


But voting was one thing – real equality was something else. In 1923, women might be wearing their skirts short and their hair shorter, but the men who made the laws weren’t about to consign away their power.


Support for the ERA came in fits and starts. The Republicans introduced it into their party platform in 1940, the Democrats in 1944 (male union members thought women might threaten their jobs, hence the delay). President Eisenhower, so very much the face of 1950s tradition and conformity, asked a joint session of Congress to pass the amendment in 1958. But it wasn’t until the formation of the National Organization for Women and the growing groundswell of a women’s movement in the late 1960s that the ERA started to be seen as viable.


In the wake of successful Civil Rights legislation and the shock wave that was Stonewall, women were fighting back against the sexist laws that had defined – and confined – them for years. Young women who had been born into the Mad Men era of excess petticoats and desperate husband-hunting were gaining opportunities almost daily. And the ERA was sailing through state legislature after state legislature.


Until Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative and former Congressional candidate, organized a group to fight ratification. The arguments were simple: the ERA would take away women’s “special privileges.” Specifically, it would force women into combat, rob them of   alimony entitlement, and force them into unisex bathrooms. Among other things. It all amounted to the insistence that women would be forced out of their roles as contented wives and mothers and into careers. Apparently, hyperbole goes down well when you’re scared of change.


Since change happened anyway, there’s some question – even amongst women – as to whether the ERA is still needed. Surely, it would just be a symbol?


Well, no. Because while the ERA wouldn’t stop the sort of medieval mentality that characterizes the debate over reproductive rights (seriously, some are trying to restrict birth control now?), it would be a useful weapon in the insistence that what a woman decides is right for her should be the last word on the subject. It would make it harder for anyone to keep getting away with paying women less than men for comparable work. And it would be a powerful tool in the ongoing battle for social and economic parity.


The thing is, we’ve seen that rights won can be rolled back. Some of the battles being fought now are little more than retreads, just with different clothes. Having an ERA wouldn’t win those battles, but it would make it a lot harder for those combating women’s rights to fight on.




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