Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Drafting Women

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The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that states, "Equality of rights shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." Originally proposed by Alice Paul and the Woman's Party in the 1920s, the ERA was designed to provide full citizenship rights and complete the process begun with woman suffrage. However, it was originally opposed by many women leaders, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, because it would block legislation designed to protect women workers from harsh factory conditions. The ERA seemed designed to help educated middle-class women, and so labor unions opposed it. By 1972, however, the feminist demand was for access to the workplace rather than protection from it, and most women's groups endorsed the measure. It did not seem controversial, and it sailed through Congress by large majorities and quickly obtained thirty of the thirty-eight states needed to ratify it.

However, conservative women, led by Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA organization, mounted a counterattack and stopped the ERA cold. At that point it became controversial and politicized. In 1980 the Republican Party, under Ronald Reagan's leadership, dropped its longstanding endorsement. Supporters called for boycotts of the fifteen states that had not ratified the amendment and succeeded in stretching the time limit for ratification to 1982. Nevertheless, they failed to obtain any additional states. The conservative opponents argued that the ERA would hurt married women by lowering their status, forcing them to take paid jobs, and removing special legal protections they enjoyed. Feminists indeed had long denounced the housewife role as subservient to husbands, unaware of the damage this was doing to their cause. Polls showed that married women tended to be conservative and Republican, whereas single and divorced women tended to be liberal and Democratic.

Legally by 1980 the ERA was mostly of symbolic importance. If enacted, it would affect only one major law: the draft. Although President Richard Nixon suspended operation of the draft in 1973, the law has remained on the books. All young men, but not young women, are required to register for it. Federal student loans are denied men who fail to register. Ratification of the ERA as part of the Constitution would mean women would have to register on the same terms; if the draft is ever reinstated, they would be drafted and serve in the Army on the same terms. Many feminist leaders had roots in the antiwar movement and recoiled in horror at supporting the military by drafting women; some took the position of opposing the draft for both men and women, which opened them to the charge of damaging national security. Conservatives supported the draft as a suitable civic duty for men, but not for women. Because the ERA was floundering anyway, the draft issue proved fatal. The federal ERA died in 1982 and has never gone into the Constitution. Many states have passed ERAs, but of course they did not confront the draft issue.


Hartmann, Susan M. From Margin to Mainstream: American Women and Politics since 1960. New York: McGraw Hill, 1996.

Mansbridge, Jane J. Why We Lost the ERA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Schlafly, Phyllis. Feminist Fantasies. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2003.

D'Ann Campbell

See also:Civil Rights Movement; Friedan, Betty; Selective Service; Volunteer Army and Professionalism; Women Integrated into the Military; Women's Rights and Feminism, 1946–Present .