The Equal Rights Amendment: A Brief History

The ‘Equal Rights Amendment’ or ERA is a proposed amendment to the US constitution which aims to guarantee ‘equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex’. It seeks to cease legal distinctions between men and women in divorce, childcare, employment and other areas of life and work.

The ERA was first drafted by Alice Paul in 1923. She presented the bill at Seneca Falls celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first ever Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. The bill was originally dubbed the Lucretia Mott Amendment, in honour of the 19th century activist who pioneered women’s suffrage in the US and who co-wrote the Declaration of Sentiments for the first Women’s Rights Convention. The bill declared that ‘women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction’. The proposed amendment was put to Congress later that year.

The bill was largely supported by campaigners across the Women’s Movement and received bipartisan support, with both the Democratic and Republican Parties formally supporting the ERA. However, many saw the ERA as a threat to big business, which profited from the lower wages paid to female workers. This was particularly the case before the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which legislated for ‘equal pay for equal work’ for men and women. Other conservative Americans saw it as a threat to ‘the American Family’ and existing power structures embedded in society.

However, the Women’s Movement picked up pace in the 1960s, with both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Equal Pay Act (1963) bringing major momentum. In March, 1972 the ERA was passed in the US Senate and House of Representatives. However, in order for the ERA to be adopted as the 28th Amendment of the US constitution, a 3/4 majority of states would have to ratify the ERA— 38 out of 50 states— within a 7 year statutory deadline. Initially, Pro-ERA activists did not anticipate this being a major barrier. Within the first year, 22 out of the 38 states needed had already ratified the ERA. This was met with a surge of Anti-ERA activism which halted much of the further progress of the bill. Congress granted an extension of the initial deadline for ratification until June 1982, but at the passing of this second deadline, the ERA had still only been ratified in 35 of the 38 states needed.

Image showing Bella Abzug marching with Pro-ERA activists in 1970s. (BETTMAN GETTY IMAGES via https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a32175363/what-is-the-equal-rights-amendment-today/)

Opposition to the ERA included a broad range of conservatives, right-wing figures and religious groups. One of the most prominent anti-ERA fronts was spearheaded by Phyllis Schlafly, who founded the STOP ERA and Eagle Forum. Schlafly and others argued that the ERA was an attack on traditional American society. They made homophobic arguments about the bill leading to gay men and women having ‘the same dignity as husbands and wives’, playing on conservative prejudices awakened in the growing LGBT Rights Movement of the 1960s. Schlafly also argued that gender equality in all areas would result in women losing their ‘privileges’. She identified these ‘privileges’ as not being conscripted into the armed forces, the tendency for women to gain full custody of children in divorce cases and also the need for ex-husbands to pay maintenance to ex-wives. Schlafly argued that such laws which seek to protect women would be unconstitutional if the ERA was ratified. Such concerns about a loss of protective privileges and protection for women may, on the surface, seem reasonable. However, when we analyse these, we see that they are fundamentally rooted in sexist gender roles and stereotypes which place the role of women in the home and in childbearing as paramount and women as a weaker or more delicate sex. Why, in principle, should women NOT be conscripted? Why, in principle, should women get custody over children? Those reasons ‘of principle’ will always come down to ideas about women as mothers, carers, homemakers and being physically/ biologically inferior to men.

The ERA Today

After the lapsed deadline of 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to congress every single year without success. The 1980s saw a wave of strong conservatism which blocked much of the progress of the bill and the Republican Party wavered on its support. For over 30 years, the ERA stagnated. In the 2010s however, #MeToo and a new wave of Feminist activism sparked a resurgence in the campaign for ratification and in March 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA. This was followed by Illinois in April 2018 and finally, on 27th January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, meeting the minimum number of states required by Congress in 1972. Sadly, this does not ensure that the ERA will now become the 28th Amendment, despite 94% of the American public supporting the amendment according to a 2016 ERA Coalition survey. The original deadline for ratification how now passed and although the House of Representatives voted to removed the deadline altogether in February 2020, there is a question over whether removing a deadline once it has expired is constitutional. Several states also rescinded their ratification for the ERA in the 1970s, making the status of ratification unclear— there is currently no precedent for rescinding support for a proposed amendment in constitutional law.

THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification

Sources and Resources

https://www.equalrightsamendment.org

https://www.equalitynow.org/era_explainer

https://https://time.com/5657997/equal-rights-amendment-history/

http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a32175363/what-is-the-equal-rights-amendment-today/

By Coco Huggins for @thegeographerjournalist

Published by thegeographerjournalist

My name is Coco Huggins, Editor-In-Chief of The Geographer Journalist and a postgraduate scholar in Geography at The University of Cambridge. Our site aims to publish personal commentaries, articles, essays and artwork from young people across the UK and around the world focusing on a range of issues affecting society today.

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