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Equal Rights Amendment remains controversial
Historically Speaking
James Finck
James Finck

If you are watching more TV than normal, then you may be seeing ads for FX’s upcoming miniseries called “Mrs. America.” The show is about Phyllis Schlafly’s successful lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment. Knowing that Hollywood struggles with showing the truth and also believing that women’s history is often one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented, I thought I would give a bit about the history before the show airs.  

The ERA as we know it today was put forward in 1971. It reads as follows: 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.

One large misunderstanding comes from who did and who did not vote for the ERA. There is often the misconception that the old men sitting in Congress were against women’s equality, especially conservative men. However, there was overwhelming support for women by both parties in Congress. The House voted in favor 354 to 24, while the Senate voted yea 84 to 8. The President has no role in the amendment process, but Nixon put his support behind the measure anyway. What tripped up the ERA was the next part of the process: three-fourths of the states must also ratify the new amendment.  

So if the old men of Congress approved of the ERA, who fought against it? The answer was women. It was women who were part of the silent majority that suddenly became vocal. Advocates for the ERA were suddenly put into a bind – how to fight against the very people they were claiming to support. One of the failures of the ERA came from the feminist movement itself, as seen from a line in The Feminist Mystique: “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’”

Clearly the author, Betty Friedan, struck a chord with many American women who were looking for more in their lives. The problem was not all women agreed. This is still an issue that women’s groups face today, the idea that women are a single constituency. You hear statements like women vote this way or that. However, these beliefs seem to deny any diversity in women’s thought. Clearly that was a problem in the 1970s, when women led the charge against the ERA.

The split in women’s support of the ERA goes all the way back to its original 1923 introduction. There is not enough room here to tell this story, but Alice Paul, the ERA’s original author, led the minority of women in the fight for suffrage. Paul, a much better known activist today because she lines up more with modern feminists, was not as important for the fight for suffrage as Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt wanted the vote but not complete equality. Most women of the time were more in line with Catt. They liked that women were given certain rights in the work place like better hours, lifting requirements and wanting recognition for their needs as wives and mothers. Government regulations had been quicker to pass labor laws affecting women and children, with the idea that they needed more assistance. Paternalistic yes, but there were laws in their favor.  

Finally, enter Phyllis Schlafly. She represented a segment of women who saw the ERA as taking away what made them women and some of the special rights they did have. Some women were scared, maybe not justifiably, but scared nonetheless of things like being included in the draft, and losing preferential treatment by the courts for custody issues and alimony. One of the arguments that really scared some was that, if the law did not see the difference between men and women, that would lead to unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. Mostly, Schlafly, who held a law degree, promoted the important role of motherhood, which she demonstrated brilliantly to legislators by having her supporters show up in their offices with baked goods.  

In the end, only 35 of the required 38 states ratified the amendment. Later, five retracted their vote. Once again there are those today who hope to pass the ERA. However, there are currently many constitutional issues at stake. Can states retract their votes? They have gone past the time permitted to pass the amendment, so even if three more states agree to the ERA, will it count? Historically speaking, most are focusing on those questions because if the ERA has to be resubmitted to Congress, its chance of passing is worse now than in 1972, and possibly even more states may reject it.  

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.