Equal Rights Amendment

views updated Jun 27 2018

Equal Rights Amendment

While the history of slavery is well known in the United States, the fact that married women were legally subservient until the nineteenth century is less well known. The doctrine of coverture, practiced throughout the United States, meant that married women were covered by their husbands and had no separate legal existence. In practice, this resulted in the inheritance of women being assigned to their husbands, the guardianship of minor children being decided by the father, earnings of wives and minor children being claimed by the father, and lack of protection from abusive husbands. Many states allowed husbands to beat their wives to correct them as long as the means of punishment was no thicker than his thumb. This is where the rule of thumb derived. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 had paved the way for the rights of women, but it was not until 1920 that women had won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. Once the vote was assured, women's groups launched a campaign to provide for equal rights amendments at both the state and national levels.

The push for equal rights was led by the National Women's Party (NWP) who succeeded in 1925 in convincing Congress to hold the first congressional hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The amendment stated that "men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." The National Association for Women's Suffrage of America (NAWSA), headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, also worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Alice Paul, a veteran of the English campaign for women's rights, joined Catt in her struggle and accepted the presidency of the NWP. She introduced the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment to Congress, arguing that the purpose of the amendment was to allow women to be all that they could be. Opponents to the ERA could be found both in and out of the women's movement. From within, Florence Kelly led the fight against it, believing that it would take away existing protections for which women had fought.

In 1940, the Republican party endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Democrats followed in 1944. In 1946, an attempt to steer the amendment through the Senate failed. By 1950 the intent of the amendment had been weakened by a rider that exempted all laws designed to protect women. Then in 1953, the amendment was sent to congressional committees where it remained for the next two decades.

When the "second wave" of the women's movement was launched in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, new attention was focused on the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1923, support for the ERA had been considered radical, but in the 1970s support came from mainstream America as well as from more liberal elements. Advocates included The League of Women Voters, the Business and Professional Women, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Common Cause, and United Auto Workers (UAW).

Representative Martha Griffith reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, with a slight rephrasing: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." In 1972, the new version of the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress with large majorities. The stiffest battle was still ahead, however, as supporters of the amendment set out to garner the necessary approval of three-fourths of the 50 states. It was not to be. Thirty-five states ratified, but the sophisticated organization of the opposition prevented passage in the three additional states needed for ratification.

Opponents to the Equal Rights Amendment pointed out that the 14th and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution contained guarantees of equality and that existing laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act provided practical protections of rights. They painted horrifying portraits of women in combat, co-ed restrooms, and working mothers who neglected their families. To no avail, supporters countered with arguments that laws were more transitory than amendments and that women had an equal responsibility to protect their countries. They pointed out that women already worked outside the home, and that traditional families were still the norm.

Most amendments are given seven years from the date of congressional approval to win ratification by the necessary 38 states. The Equal Rights Amendment was given an unprecedented three-year extension. But in 1983, the extension expired, and the Equal Rights Amendment was never made a part of the United States Constitution. Supporters of the amendment continue to offer it up for approval at both the national and state levels, but the urgency for its passage has dissipated. As a whole, women no longer feel as threatened by the lack of an ERA because they have enjoyed the successes of a society more open to women's rights and have reaped the benefits of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on sex. In a landmark case in 1972, the Supreme Court held in Reed v. Reed that legal classifications could not arbitrarily be based on sex. Subsequent cases have upheld women's right to serve on juries, to practice law and medicine, to work in bars, to be protected from pregnancy discrimination, and to take control of their reproductive lives. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, successfully argued as a practicing lawyer that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment should protect individuals from sexual discrimination. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment was never added to the United States Constitution, protection for those rights has now become part of the fabric of American law and society. While women continue to be discriminated against in practice, they are legally protected from intentional discrimination. It could be argued that the defeat of the ERA paved the way for the success of the goals of the amendment.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Becker, Susan D. The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment: American Feminism between the Wars. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1982.

Evans, Sarah M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York, The Free Press, 1989.

Stetson, Dorothy McBride. Women's Rights in the USA: Policy Debates and Gender Roles. New York, Garland Publishing, 1997.

Equal Rights Amendment

views updated Jun 08 2018

Equal Rights Amendment


By: Martha Griffiths, Birch Bayh and Marlow Cook

Date: 1972

Source: 92nd U.S. Congress. Equal Rights Amendment. United States Statutes at Large. volume 86, pages 1523-1524, 1972.

About the Author: Democratic United States Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Democratic Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, and Republican Senator Marlow Cook of Kentucky took the language of the Equal Rights Amendment, originally written in 1921 and substantially revised in 1950, and made changes to help foster its successful passage in both the House and Senate in 1972.


Alice Paul, a highly educated Quaker woman who earned five degrees, including a master of laws and a Ph.D. in economics, joined the National American Women's Suffrage Association in 1910; she left six years later to found the National Women's Party. In 1921, one year after the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, Paul penned the "Equal Rights Amendment," which read: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." Paul read the proposed amendment at a 1923 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first women's rights convention in the same town in 1848.

Designed to give American women equal protection under the law in such areas as employment, family law, education, and civil society, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923 by Senate Republican Whip Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel R. Anthony, Susan B. Anthony's nephew. For the next forty-nine years proponents of the amendment submitted it to Congress for passage; finally in 1972 the joint efforts of Democratic Representative Martha Griffiths, Democratic Senator Birch Bayh, and Republican Senator Marlow Cook led to a draft of language that helped facilitate its passage. Griffiths had been widely credited with inserting language on gender protection into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the ERA helped reinforce her reputation as a women's rights legislator.

Senator Sam Ervin and Representative Emmanuel Cellar added a seven-year clause to the amendment: Thirty-eight states had to ratify the ERA within seven years for the amendment to be added to the Constitution. This tactic had been used on the Nineteenth Amendment as well, though many women's groups viewed it as unfair. March 22, 1979 became the ERA deadline.


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.


In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly, best-selling conservative author and activist, created the National Committee to Stop the ERA and established the Eagle Forum, a conservative response to the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly's primary argument against the ERA was that the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act provided enough gender protection for women; the ERA would not only duplicate those laws, but would also, by using the word "sex" in the amendment, open the door for federal acceptance of gay rights.

By 1977, thirty-five states had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment; with three more the amendment's adoption would be complete. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, poured money and time into grass roots campaigns in each state to push for ratification. Rallied by the amendment and the belief that the ERA would be the final push for legislative equality, in February 1977 NOW encouraged a boycott of all states that had not ratified the amendment.

At the same time, Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative groups worked to prevent the ERA's ratification. By arguing that gender equality would force women into the military, including combat, and to lose preferential treatment in child custody cases, Schlafly and her organizations helped stall the ERA's momentum. Despite a three-year extension, the ERA never gained the thirty-eight states needed, remaining instead three states shy. As of June 30, 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment officially timed out.

On March 15, 2005, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York introduced the Equal Rights Amendment to Congress once again using the "three-state strategy," an argument written by law students in 1995. This maintains that the Twenty-Seventh Amendment—the 1992 amendment regarding Congressional pay raises—actually began its ratification process in 1789 and was not fully ratified until 203 years later. Using this precedent, the strategy further maintains that the original thirty-five state ratifications are still valid and that time should be extended indefinitely to allow three more to ratify the amendment. Despite legal challenges and questions, feminist groups and supporters continue to push for the ERA's adoption using this argument.



Becker, Susan D. The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment: American Feminism Between the Wars. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Felder, Deborah G. A Century of Women: The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Kensington Publishing Corp., 1999.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Champlaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Web sites

Ms. Magazine. "Her Story: 1971—Present" 〈http://www.msmagazine.com/about.asp〉 (accessed April 17, 2006).

National Women's Political Caucus. 〈http://www.nwpc.org〉 (accessed April 17, 2006).

Equal Rights Amendment

views updated May 18 2018


The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was the most highly publicized and debated constitutional amendment before the United States for most of the 1970s and early 1980s. First submitted by Congress to the states for ratification on March 22, 1972, it failed to be ratified by its final deadline of June 30, 1982. If ratified, the ERA would have become the twenty-seventh amendment to the Constitution. The proposed addition would have read, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The ERA was written by alice paul, of the National Woman's Party, and was first introduced in Congress in 1923. No action on the amendment was taken until the national organization for women, which was founded in 1966, revived interest in it.

When the amendment was first submitted to the states in 1972, Congress prescribed a deadline of seven years for ratification. Because an amendment must be ratified by the legislatures or conventions of three-fourths of the states, the ERA required approval by thirty-eight states.

Advocates of the ERA intended it to give women constitutional protection beyond the equal protection Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. They believed that the ERA would compensate for inadequate statutory protections for women and sluggish judicial enforcement of existing laws. According to a report that accompanied passage of the ERA resolution in the House, the ERA was necessary because "our legal system currently contains the vestiges of a variety of ancient common law principles which discriminate unfairly against women" (H.R. Rep. No. 92-359, 92d Cong. [1971]). These vestigial principles, the report argued, gave preferential treatment to husbands over wives, created a double standard by giving men greater freedom than women to depart from moral standards, and used "obsolete and irrational notions of chivalry" that "regard women in a patronizing or condescending light."

The ERA encountered significant opposition, particularly in southern states. Opponents of the amendment held that certain inequalities between men and women are the result of biology and that some legislation and state policies must necessarily take this fact into account. Some also contended that the ERA would undermine the social institutions of marriage and family. Others argued that women already had sufficient constitutional protections and that the ERA was made unnecessary by recent liberal Supreme Court decisions, including frontiero v. richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 93 S. Ct. 1764, 36 L. Ed. 2d 583 (1973), which struck down a federal law that gave preferential treatment to married males over married females in securing salary supplements while in the armed services.

Frontiero also serves as an example of the way in which the ERA influenced the Supreme Court. In a concurring opinion, Justice lewis f. powell jr. cited the pending ERA ratification as a reason to delay gender-related constitutional interpretation. He favored waiting for the results of the ERA's ratification process so that the political process might guide the Court's constitutional interpretation.

By 1973, less than two years after its submission to the states, thirty states had ratified the ERA, and the success of the measure seemed likely. Only five more states ratified the measure, however, by the end of the seven-year deadline, leaving it three states short in its bid to become law. In June 1979, Congress extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982. During the extension, ERA supporters organized economic boycotts of states that failed to ratify the amendment. Despite all these efforts, and even though public opinion polls indicated that a majority of U.S. citizens supported the measure, no more states ratified the ERA.

Supporters of the ERA reintroduced the amendment in Congress yet again on July 14, 1982. The House of Representatives voted down the proposal on November 15, 1983.

further readings

Corwin, Edward S. 1978. The Constitution and What it Means Today. 14th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Daughtrey, Martha Craig. 2000. "Women and the Constitution: Where We Are at the End of the Century." New York University Law Review 75 (April): 1–25.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A., and Patricia Smith, ed. 2004. Women and the United States Constitution: History, Interpretation, and Practice: A Collection of Essays. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.


Equal Protection; Women's Rights.

Equal Rights Amendment

views updated May 23 2018


EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT. Drafted by Alice Paul, a leader of the National Woman's Party, and first proposed as an addition to the U.S. Constitution in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) stated that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Supporters argued that the Constitution must include the principle of equality of rights for women and that such an amendment would remove sex-based discrimination. Opponents of women's rights objected, as did some women's rights advocates who feared it would jeopardize recent legislation providing female industrial workers minimum protection against exploitative working conditions. The Supreme Court had upheld protective legislation for women in Muller v. Oregon (1908), claiming the need to protect citizens able to bear children. Convinced that Congress would not extend labor protections to men and that the Court would therefore deny it to women if the amendment passed, organized labor opposed the ERA. It remained bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee for forty-seven years, despite efforts to secure passage.

The 1960s brought renewed attention to the amendment. Although women's roles in the economy had changed, hopes had faded that the Supreme Court would use the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to subject laws that discriminated on the basis of sex to the same strict scrutiny applied to laws discriminating on the basis of race. Thus, when protective legislation was revealed to have harmed the very group it was intended to protect, liberal feminists had an additional reason for urging passage of the ERA. After a massive lobbying campaign, Congress, in March 1972, voted overwhelmingly to submit to the states a revised version of the ERA for ratification within seven years. Twenty-two states rushed to ratify, but, by 1975, momentum had slowed. As the ratification deadline approached, Congress extended it by three years, to 30 June 1982. Even after this extension, supporters could secure favorable votes from only thirty-five of the thirty-eight states needed for passage. Five states, meanwhile, rescinded their endorsements. In December 1981 a federal judge ruled that those rescissions were legal and that Congress had acted illegally in extending the ratification deadline. Before ERA supporters could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, however, the deadline for ratification expired, leaving opponents of the amendment victorious.

Opposition to the ERA in the 1970s and 1980s differed in important ways from that encountered in previous decades. Conservative legislators, mostly in southern and western states, voted against the amendment. They believed it would mean an intrusion of federal power that would diminish their ability to govern and would interfere with the right of individuals to live as they chose. Such politicians could vote according to their apprehensions and still claim to be responsive to the wishes of female constituents who opposed the amendment. Another factor was the skill with which far-right activists transformed popular perceptions of the amendment. By equating ERA and feminism, especially radical feminism, and making it appear dangerous to women, opponents succeeded in eroding the national consensus for the amendment. Although some states passed equal rights amendments to their own constitutions in the 1970s, efforts to secure congressional passage of a new federal amendment failed.


Becker, Susan D. Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Berry, Mary Frances. Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women's Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Hoff-Wilson, Joan, ed. Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

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

Whitney, Sharon. The Equal Rights Amendments. New York: Watts, 1984.

Jane SherronDe Hart/c. p.

See alsoDiscrimination: Sex ; Frontiero v. Richardson ; Muller v. Oregon ; Women's Rights Movement: The Twentieth Century ; and vol. 9: NOW Statement of Purpose .

Equal Rights Amendment

views updated May 21 2018


In March 1972, Congress proposed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution. The amendment provided:

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. The Amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

In May 1982, the extended deadline for ratification expired without the necessary approval from three-fourths of the states; fifteen had never ratified and five had voted to rescind their ratification. Challenges to the legality of those rescissions and to Congress's extension of the ratification deadline became moot.

Proponents subsequently reintroduced the amendment in Congress, thus continuing a campaign that began a half-century earlier. Some version of an equal rights amendment had surfaced in every congressional term between 1923 and 1972. In the view of most proponents, the text adopted in 1972 was designed to prohibit gender classifications except those concerning personal privacy, physical characteristics, or past discrimination. The rationale was that a constitutional prohibition would avoid piecemeal remedies for various forms of discrimination. Such a mandate would also subject sex-based classifications to a more rigorous standard of review than that prevailing under fourteenth amendment doctrine, which allows discrimination substantially related to an important state purpose.

Although conceived as a measure to unite women, the amendment has often divided them. Throughout its history, the ERA campaign has triggered fundamental controversies about the meaning of equality and the means to attain it in a society marked by significant disparities in sexual roles. Much debate has centered not on legal entitlements but on cultural aspirations. Dispute has focused on the amendment's effect concerning laws purportedly advantaging women, such as protective labor legislation, marital support requirements, and military service exemptions. Particularly during the earlier part of the century, opponents contended that equality in formal mandates could never secure equality in fact. So long as female wage earners and homemakers were more economically vulnerable than men, a demand for equal rights appeared out of touch with social realities. By contrast, ERA proponents contended that protective legislation had often "protected" women from opportunities for higher paid vocations, and had legitimated stereotypes on which invidious discrimination rested. Supporters also noted that by the time Congress proposed the amendment in 1972, much sex-based regulation had been either invalidated or extended to men, and that which remained could be cast in sex-neutral terms.

So too, much of the discrimination that the amendment was originally designed to redress was, by the 1970s, illegal under various judicial, executive, and legislative mandates. Accordingly, the ERA ratification campaign frequently focused on symbolic rather than legal implications. To proponents, a constitutional mandate would serve as an important affirmation of women's equal status and as a catalyst for change in social practices beyond the scope of legal regulation. For opponents, however, the amendment's symbolic subtext represented an assault less on gender discrimination than on gender differences, and an invitation for further encroachments on states' rights.

In the ratification struggle of the 1970s, ERA supporters lacked the leverage to make their interests felt. But if the equal rights campaign helps inspire and empower women to expand their political influence, then the struggle itself may prove more important than its constitutional consequences.

Deborah L. Rhode

(see also: Feminist Theory.)


Boles, Janet 1979 The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment. New York: Longmans.

Brown, Barbara A.; Emerson, Thomas I.; Falk, Gail; and Freed - man, Ann E. 1971 The Equal Rights Amendment: A Constitutional Basis for Equal Rights for Women. Yale Law Journal 80:872–985.

Rhode, Deborah L. 1983 Equal Rights in Retrospect. Journal of Law and Inequality 1:1–72.

Equal Rights Amendment

views updated May 18 2018

Equal Rights Amendment

The struggle to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women was an important, if ultimately unsuccessful, chapter in the history of the women's movement in the United States. Throughout the history of the United States, as well as of the world, women had always had fewer rights than men. For years, they could not own property or run for elective office. They could not even vote in the United States until 1920. Although the status of women in the United States had gradually improved over time, many glaring inequalities with which they had to suffer still existed. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was an attempt to end those inequalities.

The ERA was first proposed in 1925 by the National Women's Party and introduced into Congress by Alice Paul (1885–1977), the group's president. It was a controversial proposal that did not get far in the legislative process. Part of the controversy centered around what would happen to laws designed to protect women if they must be treated equally under the law. Although the amendment was endorsed by both Democratic and Republican parties in the 1940s, it still went nowhere in Congress. In 1970, U.S. representative Martha Griffiths (1912–) of Michigan reintroduced the amendment. It read simply, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." This time, in 1972, it passed both houses of Congress. For an amendment to be passed and added to the Constitution, however, it must be approved by three-fourths of the states within seven years. At the state level, a fierce debate ensued. Supporters of the ERA argued that women deserved the same rights as men. Opponents of the ERA raised people's fears that equal rights for women meant women in combat, more women in the work-place, and the end to other long-established gender roles. Although thirty-five states approved it, and despite a three-year extension of the time limit, it failed to attract the final votes necessary to pass in 1983. It has been periodically resubmitted to Congress without much success in the years since.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Becker, Susan D. The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment: AmericanFeminism Between the Wars. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

"Chronology of the Equal Rights Amendment 1923–1996." NationalOrganization for Women.http://www.now.org/issues/economic/cea/history.html (accessed March 29, 2002).

Evans, Sarah M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

National Council of Women's Organizations. The Equal Rights Amendment.http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/ (accessed March 29, 2002).

Rowbotham, Sheila. A Century of Women. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.