March is Women’s History Month, and in recent months, the Equal Rights Amendment has come up again, and again. Do we still need the Equal Rights Amendment? Why were the strongest advocates, and the strongest opponents, all women? What can we learn from the fight for the ERA when it comes to amending the Constitution, using the judicial system to wrong rights, and the power divide in Congress?
This Women’s History Month, let’s take a quick look back at the Equal Rights Amendment, which we all know is not a part of the Constitution that exists now, but it has now been ratified by 35 states, though many did it too late.
The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced into Congress in 1923, three years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The amendment intended to overcome the legal distinctions between men and women that often left women on the receiving end of injustice, lower pay, loss of property in divorce settlements, and more.
The Equal Rights Amendment is also known as the Alice Paul Amendment. Paul was a suffragette who fought for the 19th Amendment, and you can learn more about her here.
Let’s look at what the ERA actually says. It’s short, so here we go:
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.
2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
Many versions, all similar, of the ERA were introduced over the years, all receiving varied levels of support in Congress and nationally. Many women supported the amendment, wanting a more equal world. Others did not, thinking that it would do away with protections for women that they had fought for (such as not being drafted, limits on working conditions in factories, etc). The divide wasn’t always on party lines. Women all had unique reasons for supporting or opposing the amendment, depending on their class, their race, their own experiences in life, and their political involvement.
One of the strongest opponents to the Equal Rights Amendment during the ratification process was Phyllis Schlafly. In fact, she became a household name for her work with the Eagle Forum. You can read her “10 Reasons to Oppose the ERA” here. Others argued that because of the 14th Amendment, we didn’t need the ERA. In present conversations, the argument mostly focuses on the way the judicial and legal systems have worked to do away with sex based discrimination.
If you’re interested in learning about the support behind the ERA, and why the people proposing it felt so strongly about it, you can read the FAQ section on their website here. They argued that the Constitution did not specify sex, and therefore it permitted sex based discrimination,which we can all agree, at least today, is not ideal. They wanted it written, in Constitutional stone, that women must be treated equally under the law.
After years and years of debate in Congress and around the country, and largely due to a surge in the women’s movement in the US, Representative Martha Griffiths introduced the ERA into Congress in 1971, and it finally passed. The proposed amendment was approved by the House in October and the Senate in March, then sent to the states.
As we know from civics class, an amendment doesn’t get added to the Constitution easily. It must be approved by both chambers of Congress and then ratified by three-fourths of the states. There’s usually a deadline included. For the ERA it was initially 1979, then that was extended to 1982. Essentially, if 38 states had not ratified the amendment by 1982, it would not be added.
Well, that’s what happened. When the deadline came and went in 1982, only 35 states had ratified the amendment. Several states had “revoked” their ratification. The ERA was not ratified, but that was not the end of the fight. Every year since then, the ERA has been reintroduced into Congress. Similarly, many states have “ratified” the original ERA amendment, despite the deadline passing decades ago. Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017, and Virginia ratified it in January 2020. These are largely symbolic efforts. The amendment’s deadline has passed and any addition to the Constitution would seemingly have to start in Congress, again.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue now, the history of the ERA is fascinating. On both sides, you had women standing up to voice their concerns,their desires, and to get politically involved. You had women fighting with the Constitutional system, learning more about it, and making history regardless of ratification. There’s a reason we’re still talking and learning about the ERA today, and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon. You’re not going to be asked to take a stance today, but it doesn’t hurt to keep learning about the ERA. Read arguments on both sides. Ask the big questions about what our Constitution says and doesn’t say.
If you want to learn more about the Equal Rights Amendment, the following are some great resources that cover the history, the legal issues, and sometimes take a side.
Congressional Research Service: The Equal Rights Amendment: Close to Adoption?
The Journal of Legal Studies: Does the U.S. Constitution Need an Equal Rights Amendment?
Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. “The Equal Rights Amendment“
(Almost) 100 Years of the Equal Rights Amendment by Stuff You Missed in History Class
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