Next week marks the 90th anniversary of the first time the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress. The purpose of the ERA was to establish legal gender equality. It was a proposed amendment to the Constitution which stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
While the ERA failed to become part of the Constitution, it remains the most popular proposed amendment to the Constitution. About ten percent—over 1,100—of all the amendments introduced in Congress have been for the ERA. Three documents from the records of Congress can help your students understand why an amendment with considerable support ultimately failed to meet the constitutional bar for ratification.
The Equal Rights Amendment was drafted in 1923 by well-known women’s rights activist Alice Paul. It was first introduced in Congress on December 13 by Representative Daniel Anthony (R-KS), who was suffragette Susan B. Anthony’s nephew. The debate over the ERA continued for decades, and the ERA was reintroduced in every Congress until 1972.
Central to the ERA debate was the argument over the value of protective legislation for women. In the early 20th century, there were many laws designed to protect women. These laws excluded women from certain jobs in some professions that were deemed too physically difficult for women’s fragile physiques. Some laws regulated the hours a woman could work so she would still have time to take care of her children. Those who supported protective legislation believed that an equal rights amendment would void this type of law and leave women open to exploitation.
Proponents of the ERA felt that protective legislation enforced women’s status as second class citizens and that absolute legal equality was necessary to combat discrimination. When Representative Martha Griffiths (D-MI) led the House to a vote on the ERA during 1970s, for example, she asserted that protective laws only confined women to poorly paying occupations with little opportunity for advancement. She also argued that protective legislation limiting working hours did not stop women from holding multiple, low salary positions, but put jobs like chief executive out of reach.
Both traditionalists, who believed that women belonged in the home taking care of the family, and protectionist feminists were vehemently opposed to the ERA’s central demand for equality. This coalition managed to prevent the ERA from passing Congress, despite its reintroduction in every Congress from 1923 to 1972.
In 1970, after decades of receiving little attention and getting bottled up in committee, congressional hearings were held and the amendment was given serious consideration. By March 1972 the ERA had been approved by 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Twenty-two states quickly ratified the amendment in 1972. But when the final deadline for ratification arrived in 1982, the constitutionally required number of ratifications—3/4 of the states—had not been attained. It was three states short. Although the ERA continues to be introduced in each Congress, it has never again reached the level of support it had in 1972.
Share these documents with your students to introduce the controversy over the Equal Rights Amendment. Get them to consider the timing—that the amendment was first introduced right after woman suffrage was secured, and came to fruition during the era of feminism. Pose these questions:
- Why did these two women write to Congress?
- Why were some women opposed to equal rights for women?
- Why did some feel it was needed? Was an equal rights amendment necessary in 1971? Is it necessary today?