The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposal written in 1921 by Alice Paul, who was the founder of the National Woman’s Party. It was designed mainly to invalidate many state and federal laws that she felt discriminated against women; its central underlying principle was that sex should not determine the legal rights of American men or women.
This proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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” and also that “the Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” The amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1923, soon after women in the United States had been given the right to vote. The U.S. Senate finally approved it 49 years later, in March 1972. It was then submitted to the state legislatures for ratification within seven years but, despite a deadline extension to June 1982, was not ratified by the required majority votes from 38 states. It would have become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.
Even though the ERA gained ratification of 30 states within one year of its approval by the Senate, escalating intense opposition from conservative religious and political organizations brought the ratification to a standstill. The main objections to the ERA were based on fears that women would lose privileges and protections such as exemption from compulsory military service and combat duty and economic support from husbands for themselves and their children.
Among the opponents to the ERA, was a woman by the name of Phyllis Schlafly, a St. Louisan known for her opposition to the women’s liberation movement. She earned a law degree from Washington University and earned a master’s degree in political science from Harvard University. She worked as a researcher for several Congressmen in Washington, D.C., and ran unsuccessfully for Congress herself in 1952 and 1970. She was largely opposed to the ERA as she believed that the amendment would require women to serve in combat, and because it would also take away legal rights of wives and would negatively influence family life. Schlafly also argued that the amendment would lead to unisex restrooms and the depravation of rights for women to not take a job, to keep her baby, and to be supported by her husband. She became a leading opponent of the ERA through her lobbying organizations such as Stop ERA and Eagle Forum, and by testifying against the ERA before 30 state legislatures.
Advocates of the ERA, led primarily by the National Organization for Women (NOW), held that the issue was primarily economic. The position of NOW was that many state and federal laws amounted to sexual discrimination which perpetuated a climate of economic dependence among women and that laws determining child support and job opportunities should be designed for the individual rather than for one sex. Many advocates of the ERA thought that the failure to adopt the proposal as an amendment would cause women to lose many gains and would give a negative attitude to courts and legislators regarding feminist issues.
Alice Paul, who I mentioned earlier as a proponent for the ERA, was a national leader of women’s suffrage movement, and founded National Woman’s Party. Public and equal justice for women was the basic entirety of her political goal. She was also involved with the militant wing of the English suffrage movement. She founded what was later to become the National Woman’s Party, which incorporated methods that originated in England to the struggle to pass the suffrage amendment. During WWI, she picketed the White House to protest against a government that she said, promised to make the world safe for democracy while denying half of its citizens the right to vote . Alice and others who were involved in this protest were arrested and imprisoned. She was very proud of the success of her efforts in getting the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote. But for her the ability to vote was not enough to guarantee women’s equal rights and she decided to concentrate her efforts for the ERA. Introduced in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed Congress in 1972 but there it stopped as it failed to win ratification.
Although it failed to become ratified by congress, currently since 1985 the ERA has been reintroduced into each session of Congress and held in Committee.