Equal Rights Amendment

ERA buttons
ERA buttons
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first proposed in the U.S. Congress in 1923, guarantees the equality of rights for all people in the United States. The amendment has been pushed by women’s groups since 1920. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the rise of a second, more sweeping women’s rights movement led to reconsideration of an amendment to secure women the rights to equal wages and equal consideration under the law.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the congressional approval of the amendment but the failure of enough states to ratify it into the Constitution. The failure of the ERA in 1982 was a step backward politically.

The historical landmark for increased rights for women was the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a clarion call by concerned females to the rest of the country for increased rights. The unity of the convention was quickly disturbed by the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was meant to give rights and liberties to freed slaves. However, women’s groups argued over how loosely the amendment could be interpreted and whether such equality was given to black women if the Constitution did not include rights for white women.

Legal interpretations of woman’s rights in the United States became more sophisticated in the early 20th century, as the Supreme Court saw fit to deal with issues of labor. In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court ruled that the number of hours worked by women was not related to the maintenance of public health.

In Muller v. Oregon (1908), however, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a 10-hour work day passed by the Oregon state legislature and aimed toward regulating industry in favor of employees.

The first protests for suffrage began in front of the White House in January 1917, led by future members of the National Women’s Party (NWP), including equal rights advocate Alice Paul. Agitation by women dedicated to the cause of women’s suffrage, along with rights to fair wages, was successful, as the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.

Even with this success, a major rift developed between activists like Paul who sought quicker strides for women, and experienced professionals like Carrie Chapman Catt and Florence Kelly. Catt and Kelly feared the NWP’s agenda was too sweeping and harmful to progress already being made for women in the areas of judicial review and minimum-wage legislation.

Equal Rights Amendment
Equal Rights Amendment

The 1920s–1930s saw several phases in the battle between the NWP and other women’s groups—including vacillation on whether an equal rights amendment would be effective, whether protective legislation for women should be incorporated with an amendment, and whether courts should be more active in providing equality for women.

The NWP remained active not only in working for an amendment for equal rights but in creating a better work environment for women in the United States and expanding equal rights throughout the globe.

However, the NWP was not successful in fulfilling many of its goals because of strong-arm tactics by more conservative groups in the United States, more conservative governments globally, and the devastation of the Great Depression.

The idea of an equal rights amendment was not lost with the diminishing influence of the NWP. In every session of Congress between 1923 and the passage of the ERA in 1982, an amendment was introduced dealing with equal rights based on gender. The Republican Party included a fairly progressive plank in their 1940 platform.

The U.S. Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment three times—in 1949, 1953, and 1959—but each passage was marred by an irreconcilable rider exempting existing sex-specific legislation from the amendment. The period between the Great Depression and the rise of feminism was one of slow progress toward public acceptance of the ERA.

The rise of a feminist movement in the 1960s was broad and rapidly well organized. The movement encompassed all aspects of female life in the United States. The expression of sexuality by women was made a topic of discussion after Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique was published in 1963.

The creation of a marketable birth control pill in 1960 made a woman’s control over her own body an important aspect of public health. The establishment of the National Organization for Women in 1966 and its rapid acceptance among other lobbying groups gave the feminist movement a political organization that would be unrivaled within a few years.

The Equal Rights Amendment was passed several times in the 1970s by the House of Representatives, but was not passed through to the ratification process. In August 1970 the House passed the ERA 352-15, and in the fall of 1971, on the back of Representative Martha Griffins (D-MI), the House passed the ERA 354-23; it was moved further by congressional approval in 1972. It was not until 1982, however, that the legislative approval of the ERA was followed up by the ratification process.

The amendment failed when only 13 of the state legislatures ratified. One cause of trepidation by the public toward the amendment was the activism of antifeminists such as Phyllis Schlafly, who saw the amendment as an unnecessary exercise and a waste of energy for women. However, the amendment’s process and the rise of feminism and antifeminism have opened a dialogue for women’s issues and legal interpretations of equal rights in already existing amendments.