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March 22, 1972: ERA on Deck
The United States Senate approves the Equal Rights Amendment.
The fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) accentuates the divide between conservative and liberal women. The dialogue reflects different worldviews and biases. Today, there are 38 states that have ratified the ERA with the last one being Virginia in January 2020. In 2021, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California have introduced legislation to remove the Congressional deadline.
Still, the forces of sexism, unfortunately intellectualized under conservative auspices, have become just as prominent.
One sign that the 20th century would be one of dynamism and increased diversity was a major development in its early decades: women in America gained the right to vote through the 19th amendment to the Constitution. The political energy unleashed would forever change the world as a segment of the population (within a very powerful nation) was increasingly contributory to the state of national affairs as they offered a perspective overlooked for too long.
Women have always been integral to the American project. Abigail Adams warned her husband to not forget about the ladies when crystallizing the early institutions of a new nation. Women homesteaders toiled on harsh, infertile farms while participating in backbreaking work throughout the 19th century in order to help feed their families. An overwhelmingly large portion of the temperance movement’s energy (that evolved into the 21st amendment: Prohibition) came from women sharing personal experiences getting brutalized by drunken husbands and other men. Like any other marginalized group, women have existed in the background and foreground of American life ever since the first set of Natives settled on these beautiful lands upon an Ice Age melting away.
However, after the success of women’s suffrage in America, their political capital increased exponentially. One manifestation of this development is the emergence of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The initial version of the ERA was written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, then brought to Congress at the end of 1923 under the title of the Lucretia Mott Amendment. Much of the initial opposition formed around working women worried about hard earned special protections in the workplace. The call for labor considerations gained steam as more women entered the workforce due the onset of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The ERA was supported by professional women too, like Amelia Earhart. Still, the National Women’s Party, the organizational power behind ERA advocacy, addressed these concerns and altered the language to say:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
It is also important to point out that the ERA was added to both Democratic and Republican platforms in the 1940s.
Up until the modern era, there wasn’t as visceral of a political opposition to the ERA as there was a deep social opposition, especially as the nation moved into a progressively conservative stasis during its post-World War II heyday. Throughout the midcentury (the 1950s - 1970s), much of the focus in history books look at the rise of the awe-inspiring Second Wave of Feminism (we are in the Fourth today) from the publishing of “The Feminine Mystique” to the muckraking journalism that exposed abuses in the notorious Playboy Club to the rise of women in leading roles throughout various sectors of life from politics, law, and business to sports and entertainment.
But the backlash often goes overlooked (until more recent years at least) as many women felt they were being frowned upon for their choices or felt a sense of grievance towards women proudly embracing a world they were conditioned to believe wasn’t for them or their gender at large. This opposition was a new style compared to the previous generation and it ran parallel to a growing conservative movement based on an aggrieved (and a mostly White) populace that had experienced the historical spoils of suburban abundance but now faced a world that looked and acted differently than the one they were accustomed to.
The battle to ratify enough states to pass the ERA was initiated after the bill passed both the House and the Senate on March 22, 1972 (today). The measures were sent to the states for ratification as an attempt to get 38 states on board began. An effort was led by Phyllis Schlafly that instilled fears into conservative women that their daughters could be sent to Vietnam, could no longer be supported by their husbands, and that gay marriage would become the norm (ugh, I know).
The demagoguery and fearmongering succeeded as traditional populations were brought into the conversation much more thanks to an emboldened social conservatism that was becoming even more of a grift-based political machine, sucking the economic and intellectual life out of Americans uncertain about the transformations occurring around them.
The deadline to ratify the ERA among 38 states was extended to June 30, 1982, originally it was in 1979.
By the 1970s, more national organizations had cropped up in support of gender equality, like the National Organization of Women. Still, I argue that the story of the ERA is also about shedding light on the overwhelming success of paleo conservatism in the latter 20th century, as only 35 states followed suit after an explosion of traditionalist grassroots activity.
It’s also important to note that many statewide officials worked diligently to make it harder to get a ratification vote at the state level. (Ugh, state’s rights!)
By 1982, the new Southern Strategy Reagan Republican party took the ERA out of its platform.
Now, there was crystallizing political opposition.
Over the following decades, Nevada, Illinois, and most recently, Virginia have ratified the ERA which puts the onus on Congress to act. That could come in the form of a new ratification process by repassing the laws through the national legislature and then kicking them down to the states, again.
Or Congress can revoke the arbitrary deadline it imposed and pass the bill.
This fight for the ERA is not just about women, but really about the grotesque nature of denying half of the country’s perspectives and contributions from budding into a progressive national agenda that can supply new ideas and energy to other fights around poverty and workplace norms. We hold ourselves back by catering to medieval misunderstandings of gender and by looking at conservative demagoguery as “aren’t they so simple, it's cute.”
Women built America while many men were off losing their jobs, getting into bar fights over a propagandized sense of superiority, and crystallizing underclasses of people through ideas coming out of a mostly White male echo chamber.
It’s time to unleash our feminine energy and enter the future.
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