Equal Rights Amendment

Equal Rights Amendment: Are We the People?

Rebeca Ramos, December 2016

Remember the day when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) made it into the Constitution? Unfortunately, this never happened because the ERA was never ratified by 38 states. After decades of pushing for the verification of the Equal Rights Amendment, in the early 1980s it failed to pass during the final rally with 35 of the states ratifying the Amendment, three states short of making it into the constitution. Since then, there has been many strides and advancements made for women in other ways. However, the question still remains, is the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) needed in the Constitution?

Since the founding of America, women time after time have been denied equal rights under the law. When the Declaration of Independence was drafted (1776), it stated that all men are created equal, this excluded women and men of color. In 1848, women voiced their want for gender equality for the first time at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott… convened a two-day meeting of 300 women and men to call for justice for women in a society where they were systematically barred from the rights and privileges of citizens. A Declaration of Sentiments… were adopted with ease, but the proposal for woman suffrage was passed only after impassioned speeches by Stanton and former slave Frederick Douglass…” [1] At this time, women’s rights and suffrage were not seen as a priority to the white males in power and was not taken to heart by the men in Congress.

After the Civil War, the US adopted the 14th Amendment, which “guaranteed all persons’ equal protection under the law.” [2] Have the Amendment stopped there, both men and women would have been receiving the same rights. However, the second section went on using the words “male citizens,” intentionally excluding women from the Constitution for the first time. A new era was developing for women; many women were leaving the homes and becoming more involved in the workforce, the suffrage for women started progressing and so was the in interest for the women’s suffrage movement. The National Woman’s Party, run by Alice Paul, “conducted marches, political boycotts, picketing of the White House, and civil disobedience.” [3] Many of these protests resulted in these active women being attacked and arrested and sometimes placed in prison. When Alice Paul was imprisoned in Washington she went on a hunger strike and they had to force-feed her through an I.V. [4] This only brought more awareness to women’s rights across the nation, thus increasing the supporters of the women’s suffrage movement. Finally, in 1920 the 19th Amendment, that granted women the right to vote, was ratified. Once this great milestone was achieved, the focus for many women turned to receiving the same fundamental rights under the law as men and it is no surprise that Alice Paul would be in the forefront of this movement as well.

In 1923, Alice Paul, founder of the National Women’s Party (1915), proposed the Equal Rights amendment to congress. The Amendment then stated that, “men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” [5] There were many people who disagreed with the statement because of the belief that women and men are anatomically different and therefore cannot have the same treatment in certain situations; women would need special treatment when they are pregnant and when they are taking care of their children. Some conservatives felt that a woman’s place was at the home and believed going against this tradition would have a negative impact on family values. A couple of major women activists felt that the ERA would set back all the progress that was made for women so far, like the protection of women in the workplace. Alice Paul then rewrote the amendment as, “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” [6] The ERA was developed to ensure gender equality in the US. Women at this time were still not able to own their own property or have any of the other legal rights as men; they would still experience sex-related discrimination in the workforce, like unequal pay or the types of job they were hired or not hired for based on gender.

Contrary to belief, the Republican Party was the first to support the ERA all the way until the 1980s. [7] Then eventually the ERA gained support from the Democratic Party in 1972. During this period in the 1940s, there were still some conservatives that believed giving rights to women would be detrimental to the ‘male dominated’ power that stood. During World War II, there were many shortages in the workforce in the US. During this time many women stepped in place of the men that were at war; Rosie the riveter became a symbol of strength for women in the workforce and consequently, the ERA gained more popularity. Women were able to prove that they could perform the same jobs as men and just as proficiently. However, once the war was over, many of the women had to give up their positions to the returning men. Also, this was the ‘baby-boom era’, so many women became pregnant and went back to caring for their babies, thus the popularity of the ERA started to dwindle, failing to pass Congress in 1946. The Equal Rights Amendment would be discussed in every session of congress until a new wave of the movement, by the National Organization for Women (NOW), held protests and rally’s.

In 1972, the ERA passed the house of representatives and was also approved by the Senate, where they gave the Equal Rights Amendment seven years to be ratified. By this success it seemed the ERA would finally become part of the Constitution. Each year during the seven-year period the ERA would be pushed for ratification, but every year it would fall short of the requirement of 38 states. As the seven-year mark approached nearer and nearer, there was a strong pro-ERA advocacy, but there was also a strong anti-ERA movement led by Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly believed that “the ERA would deny woman’s right to be supported by her husband, privacy rights would be overturned (separate gender bathrooms), women would be sent into combat, and abortion rights and homosexual marriages would be upheld.” [8] Schlafly used her beliefs of religion to justify why the ERA would be wrong. Shlafly’s negative out speak of the ERA caused many religious groups to be opposed the ERA as well as many men in Congress.

As the popularity of the ERA started to flicker out, some states tried to do its best to make it nearly impossible for the ERA to be ratified. Many of the pro-ERA states were quick to ratify the Amendment. In 1978, one year from the deadline, NOW held a march to extend the deadline of the ratification of the ERA, which ended up being successful and had Congress extend the deadline to June 30, 1982. However, by 1980 the nation was heading to a more conservative path and that meant the popularity of the ERA was slowly declining. Ronald Regan, a Republican, was elected president and the Republican Party no longer supported the ERA. By the time the deadline came around, the ERA was unsuccessful at ratification. Supporters of the ERA still continued to try to reintroduce the ERA into Congress, but with no results.

Even though the ERA failed there have been many other advancements in the rights of women. In 2009, president Obama signed Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which makes it “illegal to discriminate in wages based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.” [9] The ERA has made people question the construct of society, has brought up debate of human rights and ignited a movement in women that still lives on today. So the question remains, is the ERA necessary in the Constitution? The main argument against the ERA today would be that it is not needed because women already receive the same rights as men, so it’s not necessary. The other side of the argument, those who are pro-ERA, believe that it still needs to be part of the Constitution because “without the ERA, the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that the rights it protects are held equally by all citizens without regard to sex.” [10] Even though women and men have the same rights nowadays it is not in the constitution, there is a possibility that women’s rights could be taken away at any time; or a possibility that laws can be passed that prohibits certain individual rights of women. The ratification of the ERA into the Constitution means a security for women that they would always be protected under the law.

Notes
[1] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://equalrightsamendment.org/history.htm.
[2] “AMENDMENTS TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” GPO – U.S Constitution. Accessed October 23, 2016. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CONAN-1992/pdf/GPO-CONAN-1992-7.pdf.
[3] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016.
[4] Staser, Karen. “National Women’s History Museum.” Education & Resources. Accessed October 25, 2016. https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/alice-paul/.
[5] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016.
[6] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016.
[7] Keith Hughes. “The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Explained” April 23, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lC3Hf78ka-g
[8] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016.
[9] Bonnie Grabenhofer and Jan Erickson. “Is the Equal Rights Amendment Relevant in the 21st Century?” National Organization for Women. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://now.org/resource/is-the-equal-rights-amendment-relevant-in-the-21st-century/
[10] Francis, Roberta W. “History.” ERA: Unfinished Business for the Constitution. 1999-2015. Accessed October 24, 2016.

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