Guest column from LWV: What’s up with the Equal Rights Amendment?

  • CATHERINE KEPPLER

Published: 7/3/2020 4:37:45 PM

The Commonwealth of Virginia made big news two months ago by becoming the 38th state to vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It has been a long, strange trip for this piece of legislation since it was first proposed in 1923, and the journey is not yet over.

When our U.S. Constitution was originally written, it granted the right to make decisions of national importance just to white men with money, property, or an education. But the founders were visionaries, and they set it up so that changes to the Constitution could be made as society changed. And from the beginning the right to vote, called suffrage, was recognized as a key factor in our democracy.

Following the Civil War, African American men achieved the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870, part of a set of three Civil Rights Amendments. And 50 years later, after a long and organized struggle, the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women voting rights as well. It reads “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It is important to see that the 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote, but it does not address any other issues of discrimination against or equality for women.

After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many suffrage advocates became more and more vocal about what they perceived as second-rate status for women in the United States, despite their having the right to vote. Women and their supporters formed suffrage organizations and picketed, marched, spoke publicly and wrote editorials promoting the radical idea that women should have all the same rights as men, including the opportunity for work and equal pay.

In 1923, Alice Paul, a Quaker from New Jersey, wrote the simple text for an Equal Rights Amendment which stated that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied by the United States or by any state on account of sex” and that “Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provision of this article”.

She was not successful in getting this amendment passed in 1923, but women continued the crusade to push for it for years. During the 1960s, Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths tried to have sex discrimination added to the Civil Rights Act and continued introducing the ERA in Congress yearly until it finally passed the Senate in 1972. Congress allowed seven years for three quarters of the states to ratify the ERA and add it to the Constitution, and in the first year alone 22 states did do that.

But opposition to the amendment began to get organized later in the ’70s, led by anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, who argued that giving women equal rights would damage the traditional American family. This was enough to stall passage past the extended deadlines that had been set. However, many of the social changes Phyllis Schlafly warned against have happened regardless. These include gender-neutral bathrooms and women serving in military combat zones.

It has been close to 100 years since the ERA was introduced, and it is still not the law of the land, now 40 years after the ratification deadline. Advocates say it is necessary to continue to work to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in order to recognize that equality of the sexes, and gender equality in general is an important foundational principle in American life, and ensure that it remains that way.

Catherine Keppler is a member of the League of Women Voters of Franklin County.


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