The Women's Movement: The ERA
In July 1923, just before the 75th anniversary of Seneca Falls Convention, Alice Paul
announced that she would propose a new amendment to the Constitution that would
guarantee the same legal rights to women and men. Originally known as Mott's Amendment
in honor of Lucretia Mott, one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, Paul's
proposed amendment led to a sharp division in the feminist movement.
Supporters of the amendment, led by Paul's National Women's Party, argued that women
should be legally equal with men in all respects. Opponents argued that strict equality would
require the repeal of protective labor legislation designed to benefit women workers by, for
example, requiring them to work shorter hours or exempting them from night work. In
general, middle-class feminists tended to favor Paul's amendment while working-class
feminists—and organized labor in general—tended to oppose it. (Cott, 1990)
Congress was not quick to embrace Paul's amendment. Indeed, it took nearly 50 years before
a version of the proposal—by then known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA—won
Congressional passage in 1972. And, while the path to ratification initially looked clear,
opposition by social conservatives quickly surfaced; ten years later, the ratification deadline
expired and the Equal Rights Amendment had been defeated. (Burris, 1983)
The Fight for Equal Rights, 1923-1972
The ERA, in varying forms, was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until
1971, but it was routinely bottled up in committees and never even received a floor vote
until after World War II.
In the early 1950s, the division among feminists became apparent when the "Hayden rider"
was attached to the ERA. This provision would have preserved the protective labor
legislation deemed so important by many labor unions, and many working-class women, at
the time. Such legislation included laws that mandated a minimum wage, or prohibited long
hours or night shifts, for women workers.
Because these laws assumed that women were "different" from men—in the sense of being
"weaker" or more in need of special protection—they were vehemently opposed by the
National Women's Party. As long as the ERA included the Hayden rider, Paul and the NWP
opposed its passage.
The Republican Party was the first to embrace the ERA. The GOP national platform first
included a plank in support of the ERA in 1940, and President Dwight Eisenhower publicly
called for the amendment's passage in 1958. But the combination of firm opposition from
organized labor, and feminist opposition to the Hayden rider, continued to block the
amendment's passage. (Frum, 2000)
Democrats, with closer ties to organized labor, were slower to embrace the ERA. Although
John F. Kennedy endorsed the amendment late in the 1960 campaign, he did not push for its
passage after winning the White House.
Kennedy did take a number of steps favored by women's rights activists: he appointed a blueribbon national Commission on the Status of Women, which lobbied successfully for passage
of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which banned sex discrimination in pay for many professions.
He also issued an executive order banning gender discrimination in the civil service. But
most of his women appointees, including Commission chair and feminist icon Eleanor
Roosevelt, had ties to the labor movement and opposed the ERA. (Wolbrecht, 2000)
The amendment's prospects improved considerably in the mid-1960s, as women's rights
activists began to make common cause with civil rights activists, and the rise of a new and
more activist "women's liberation movement" focused on a wider range of issues of concern
In 1964, Congress banned workplace discrimination based on gender (as well as race, religion
and national origin), in the Civil Rights Act; the inclusion of women in the Act reflected,
among other factors, the concerted lobbying of Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., and the NWP's Alice Paul. While the women's rights movement and
the civil rights movement did not always see eye-to-eye—and tensions between the two
would become evident in the late 1960s—their cooperation during the debate over the Civil
Rights Act was a critical moment for both.
In 1966 feminist author Betty Friedan—whose 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, had
given voice to the frustrations of millions of American women—helped found the National
Organization for Women (NOW) and co-wrote the organization's Statement of Purpose.
NOW, she wrote, would lead "a new movement toward true equality for all women in
America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes," and would " confront, with
concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of
opportunity and freedom of which is their right."
NOW, which would formally endorse the ERA in 1967, became the driving force in
the second wave of American feminism (discussed on the next page). Along with several
other feminist organizations, NOW focused on "consciousness raising"—using highly
publicized (and sometimes confrontational) events to increase public awareness of gender
inequality—coupled with old-fashioned, hard-nosed lobbying to advance its legislative
In early 1970 NOW disrupted a Senate hearing on a proposed Constitutional amendment to
lower the voting age to 18, and demanded a hearing on the ERA. The following August, on
the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, it organized the
Women's Strike for Equality, a protest of more than 20,000 women that highlighted the need
for social, political, and economic equality. (Gourley, 2008)
Coming at a time of profound social and political change in America—a convergence of the
civil rights movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, the rise of the counterculture,
and the so-called "sexual revolution"—the demand for equal rights for women suddenly
seemed less radical than it had, only a few years earlier. (Frum, 2000) Organized labor, for
the most part, dropped its opposition, and political leaders of both parties, including
President Richard M. Nixon, publicly embraced the ERA.
In 1970 Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan spearheaded a movement to "discharge"
the ERA from the House Judiciary Committee, where it had languished for years. Once given
the opportunity to vote on the ERA the full House of Representatives approved it
overwhelmingly in 1971. The Senate followed suit in 1972 and before the year was out, 22
states had approved it—more than half the total of 38 states needed for formal ratification.
The ERA, it seemed, would soon be enshrined in the Constitution.
The Fight for Equal Rights, 1972-1982
The ERA's apparently smooth glide-path to ratification hit severe turbulence in the mid1970s. In 1972 Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and former Republican Congressional
candidate from Illinois, founded the STOP ERA campaign, an effort by socially conservative
women to derail the amendment. STOP was an acronym for "Stop Taking Our Privileges,"
and Schlafly frequently focused on the impact that the ERA would have on laws designed to
benefit women: protective labor laws, alimony and child-custody laws, and the exemption of
women from the military draft.
Opponents of the amendment often cited the labor movement's primary criticism: that the
ERA would take away protective labor laws that women, especially working-class women,
badly needed. But they did not address just working women; indeed, STOP ERA made the
case that the amendment was essentially designed to benefit younger career women, while
stripping away protections that older women—housewives and mothers without marketable
job skills—could not do without.
The emphasis on alimony, as well as on the ERA's impact on Social Security benefits, was a
direct appeal to the economic insecurity of many older housewives. More generally, Schlafly
and her supporters argued that the ERA, by equalizing the treatment of both sexes, would
economically benefit men at the expense of older, unskilled women. (Levenstein, 2014)
But economic arguments were only one element of the larger public campaign against the
ERA. The assertion that ERA would expose women to the perils of the military draft
resonated strongly—not just among younger women but among their mothers, aunts, and
grandmothers—in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. Opponents also focused on
what they portrayed as traditional values, arguing that mandating equality between the sexes
would disrupt families and upset the social order. These arguments were frequently cited by
ERA's opponents in the U.S. Senate, a vocal majority of mostly Southern social conservatives
led by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Ervin, who successfully lobbied the North
Carolina legislature to vote against ratification, argued that it would be the "height of folly to
command legislative bodies to ignore sex in making laws". (Ervin, 1977)
ERA opponents showed a flair for political symbolism: they presented state legislators with
apple pies while declaring themselves "for Mom and apple pie," and they pinned signs
reading "Don't Draft Me" on the onesies of baby girls. And their efforts quickly had an
impact: as conservative opposition to the ERA grew, the pace of ratification slowed
dramatically. After 1973 only five more states approved the amendment, leaving it three
states short of the required 38.
With the deadline for ratification approaching, Congress in 1978 approved a three-year
extension of the process, but it was not enough: the clock ran out on the ERA in 1982.
As the following video suggests, the inability of ERA supporters to win quick ratification of
the amendment gave opponents time to organize an effective opposition campaign against it.
The STOP ERA campaign took the amendment's supposedly simple and uncontroversial
goal—"Equality"—and showed it to be more complex and controversial than many people
had previously imagined.
While Phyllis Schlafly's opposition was a major factor in the defeat of the ERA, there were
larger forces at work, as well. Less than a year after the amendment was approved by
Congress the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade (1973), legalized abortion in many cases.
While Roe was seen as a victory for the women's rights movement it was a highly polarizing
one, galvanizing strong opposition among social conservatives. Frustrated by the Court's
ruling, many of those conservatives set their sights on the ERA as a means of attacking the
women's rights movement in general. (Greenhouse and Siegel, 2011)
"The Second Half of the Amendment V Process"
Congressional champions of ERA in the early 1970s simply did not expect problems securing
state approval. Neither Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana nor Representative Martha Griffiths of
Michigan, the measure's principal congressional sponsors, anticipated any difficulty in
winning ratification for the ERA. "Maybe some other folks thought of it," Bayh later recalled,
...A prime reason for such inattention was a misreading of the history of constitutional
amending. Here again ERA supporters focused on the limited data of recent experience
rather than the much larger body of evidence available from taking a longer view. Since
1960, in addition to ERA, there had been no fewer than eight major efforts to amend the
Constitution. Four amendments were added to the Constitution to deal with poll taxes,
participation of the District of Columbia in presidential elections, presidential death or
disability, and suffrage for 18 to 21 year olds. At the same time, other amendments failed that
would have limited the power of the Supreme Court, overturned its rulings regarding
legislative apportionment and school prayers, and provided direct popular election of the
president. In every one of these cases, a notable struggle occurred in Congress. Four times
when the battle was won, states quickly ratified the amendments, all in less than twenty
months. In the other four instances, good reason existed to believe that states would have
ratified if Congress had approved an amendment. Thus little attention was given to the
second half of the Amendment V process [i.e., ratification by the state legislatures]. As a
result neither congressional sponsors, supporters such as NOW, nor anyone else prepared to
campaign vigorously for ERA ratification in the states.
...Following a century largely devoid of serious amending activity, save for the three Civil
War amendments forced on the South, the twentieth century had already produced twenty
substantial and often lengthy attempts at constitutional reform. The southern response had
shaped the fate of these amendment efforts. Only one of the eleven former Confederate
states had ratified the Twenty-third, or District of Columbia Presidential Voting
Amendment, only two the Twenty-fourth or Anti-Poll Tax Amendment. Earlier all but three
held out against the Nineteenth, or Woman Suffrage Amendment, and none ratified the
Child Labor Amendment. Each of these amendments was achieved with difficulty or, in the
case of the Child Labor Amendment, not attained at all. But when five of the southern states
accepted the Seventeenth Amendment for direct election of senators, it had more easily won
adoption. Moreover, throughout the twentieth century, amendments sailed through
ratification when embraced by a majority of the southern states, as had been the case with
every other amendment from the Sixteenth in 1913 authorizing the income tax to the
Twenty-sixth in 1971 permitting eighteen-year-old suffrage. Furthermore, questionable
amendment proposals, such as Representative Louis Ludlow's war referendum plan of the
late 1930s as well as budget balancing requirements and Senator John Bricker's proposal to
restrict presidential foreign policy authority in the early 1950s, gained serious attention in no
small measure due to southern support. Every constitutional amendment proposal with
southern backing had to be taken seriously; without such underpinning any amendment
became problematic and required almost universal endorsement from non-southern states
The Women's Movement: Suffrage
In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention's Declaration of Principles asserted women's "sacred
right to the elective franchise." Over the course of the next 12 years, voting rights remained a
major goal for the emerging women's rights movement, but they were not the movement's
sole focus; economic, social, and educational issues also occupied prominent places on the
movement's agenda. (U.S. House of Representatives, 2016)
The Civil War interrupted the regular business of the women's movement. The National
Women's Rights Convention, which had been held annually since 1850, was suspended
during the war, and most women's rights activists devoted themselves to the cause of
abolition. In 1863, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the Women's
National Loyal League to campaign for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery. (DuBois,
Following the war, the right to vote became the central focus of the women's rights
movement, but this issue precipitated a sharp division in the movement's leadership. It
would take another five decades before women's right to vote would finally be enshrined in
This learning block uses the woman suffrage movement as a way to look at the issue of
causality and to develop expertise in assessing and locating primary and secondary sources, in
support of developing a research paper.
Salaries, State Campaigns, and the "Winning Plan"
The need for money drove the women's suffrage movement from its early days, leading
[Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and [Susan B.] Anthony to compromise over whom they associated
with during the 1860s. Wendell Phillips controlled two important bequests and allowed only
a small amount to go to women's rights. "Nearly driven to desperation," Anthony needed
money to pay for speakers, travel expenses, and tracts. She and Stanton thus accepted an
offer by George Train, the notoriously racist Democrat, to pay for a speaking tour and
Burned by her experience with Phillips, Anthony wanted wealthy women to prioritize
giving to the movement. Suffragists understood that they could not depend on men; it would
take the financial support of women to make change for women. It was only after Anthony's
death in 1906, however, that they began to contribute enough money to turn the tide toward
Staffing, one of the two major expenses identified by Stanton and Anthony, remained
paramount until the vote was won in 1920. Lucy Stone's observation that "there would be
plenty of helpers if there was plenty of money to pay" rang true. The suffrage movement
from the 1880s through the early 1910s focused on winning the right to vote state by state,
which depended on local and national traveling organizers barnstorming the states,
drumming up publicity, and lobbying local politicians. Traveling organizers and national
officers worked full time, giving public speeches, planning rallies, and helping to organize
local suffrage associations. They brought experience and the ability to draw a crowd.
Neither local nor national suffrage organizations had enough funding to pay the significant
salaries required. The situation was exacerbated, according to Lisa Tetrault, because women
could earn a living through the lyceum lecture circuit in the 1870s - 1880s, a popular form of
entertainment and adult education featuring traveling lecturers and performers. They came
to expect similar payment, typically between $10 and $100 per lecture, for an appearance at a
suffrage meeting. Suffrage organizations thus had to compete with the lecture circuit when
they paid speakers appearing at meetings or at their annual conventions at the state or
The lack of money available to pay speakers was complicated by the unrealistic but idealistic
idea that suffragists should volunteer their time for the cause. Quoting Wendell Phillips,
Stanton claimed that "a reformer, to be conscientious, must be free from bread-winning."
Suffrage associations were traditionally willing to hire paid organizers but usually did not pay
their officers, who were expected to cover the costs of their correspondence and travel.
[Only] well-off officers could do so.
Jumping in here to let you know that the Discussion Post for this
week includes TWO ARTICLES. The first prompt question
addresses Suffrage, and the SECOND PROMPT
QUESTION addresses the ERA article about the history of the
Amendment process and its failure - "Historical
Misunderstandings and the Defeat of the Equal Rights
Amendment". I know it's confusing the way the webtext sets up
the two articles, but indeed, the DP requires that you read both.
We need to know what the thesis statement is for the second
article, not the first.
Thanks for your great work so far, and let's keep going. I hope
you're all doing well.
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