A women’s rights triumph—100 years in the making—occurred this month in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA, which would establish a specific constitutional barrier against sex-based discrimination, won its passing vote from Virginia on January 15. For women’s rights groups nationally, the ERA’s approval has been a fought-for journey since the 1920s. However, the success is only the beginning of another fight which is for this equality statement to be added to the United States Constitution.
A brief history:
Quaker-born Alice Paul joined activism on the heels of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Campaigning fiercely for women’s rights, she spent seven months in prison for picketing in front of the White House. She went on a hunger strike during her imprisonment and had to be force-fed. With thousands more American women, she celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, in 1920. Riding the victory, Alice Paul introduced the ERA campaign to add the statement of women’s rights to the United States Constitution. The current ERA coalition founder, Jessica Neuwirth, describes Alice Paul’s era: “It was an intentional exclusion of women from the Constitution, because they were basically not considered full citizens who should have the right to vote. Once [women] got the vote, they wanted to get all the other rights that they should have.” Suffragettes believed that the ERA, a blanket statement of equal rights for women, would provide groundwork for many other rights. Alice Paul led protests and marches through the 1920s and presented the ERA to Congress, where it was not successful. TIMES magazine reported the ERA “killed.”
Thirty years passed in which the ERA seemed dead, but in the 1950s, Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths picked up the torch. Griffiths campaigned for many women’s equality agendas, declaring, “If we are America, then we ought to be what we say we are. We ought to be the land of the free and the brave. What people sought in this land was justice.” For seventeen years straight, she proposed the ERA to Congress. Every time it was denied. However, in 1972, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the amendment. From there, the proposed ERA was sent to each state. If 38 out of the 50 states (3/4ths of the USA) agreed to ratify the amendment, then it would be added to the Constitution. The votes quickly climbed to 30 within the first year, ranging from Texas to Michigan. Then, they began to trickle in. The 1979 deadline was extended to 1982, but the ERA had still only been ratified by 35 states.
Three votes short of passing, the ERA was declared dead for a second time. However, feminist and equality organizations did not cease the campaign for the ERA. They established coalitions to educate the public and the government. The buried fight saw light in 2017, when Nevada ratified the ERA. Illinois followed in 2018, bringing the count to 37 states, and on January 15th of this year, Virginia gave the final vote for the ERA to pass.
However, these final three votes came long past the 1982 deadline. Many sources believe this means the ERA is still dead. Women’s rights groups believe that they have a case for the ERA’s victory. President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, an organization which has been campaigning for the ERA for decades, stated, “As we enjoy today, we plot for tomorrow.”
Most likely, the future holds a legal battle and court hearings. The ERA currently will not be added to the Constitution as it did not get its votes by the 1982 deadline. Tom Jipping of the Heritage Foundation stated in an interview, “If activists want the ERA to be a part of the Constitution, they’re going to have to start all over again. They’re going to have to get Congress to propose it again and get it to the states for ratification. But the 1972 ERA is dead.”
On the opposite side, the chair of the ERA Coalition’s legal team, Linda Coberly, stated, “It would be unprecedented in our history for Congress to allow a joint resolution deadline to stand in the way of the effectiveness of an amendment that has been ratified by three-fourths of the states.” She, along with many other activists, believe that Congress will eliminate the deadline—as it has done before—and pass the ERA. Still, legal proceedings will create a long road for the ERA.
What would the ERA do?
The ERA simply states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” However, this could have ramifications for many different political agendas. It would strengthen cases to combat violence against women, pay inequality and discrimination based on maternity leave. The ERA would touch more controversial issues as well. For example, the amendment might make abortion-restricting laws illegal. The amendment would also help the case for gender-neutral bathrooms.
The future of the ERA will be one to watch as battles commence to resurrect the seemingly irrepressible Equal Rights Amendment.