On 22 March 1972, 50 years of hard work by women’s rights activists finally paid off when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As soon as 38 states ratified the amendment within the next seven years, the U.S. Constitution would be amended with this statement:
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, only 35 states ratified the ERA by the original deadline of 22 March 1979 (the deadline was later controversially extended to 30 June 1982, with no further state ratifications), and the victory that had seemed so close to the women’s liberation movement was once again denied. The ERA has been reintroduced in every congressional session since 1982, but has never again received enough votes for passage.
When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on 18 August 1920 granting women the right to vote, some thought the women’s liberation movement was over because it had achieved its main goal. However, voting rights were only one form of equality, and women’s rights advocates pressed for full equality before the law. Suffragist Alice Paul wrote the first ERA: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction,” and it was introduced in Congress in 1923.
Showing the perseverance of women’s rights advocates and their supporters, the ERA was introduced into every congressional session from 1923 until 1970, when the version was introduced that Congress finally passed in 1972 – by wide margins in both Houses.
The following five newspaper articles are about the (what seemed to be) historic congressional action in passing the ERA. Some of the old articles are news reports of the congressional action, some record people’s reactions, and others are editorials either supporting or condemning the ERA. By providing details of some of the congressional debates and divisions over the ERA – as well as the public’s reaction – these articles give indications of why the amendment ultimately was never ratified.
This article reports the amendment’s passage.
According to this newspaper article:
“The National Women’s Political Caucus viewed the passage of the ERA as a major victory.
“The significance of women as a new and powerful political force is demonstrated by the overwhelming margin of passage of the ERA,’ said Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., co-chairwoman of the caucus.
“The caucus is now urging women in all states to maintain the momentum by pressuring for ratification in their state legislatures.
“‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,’ said Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., in concluding his unsuccessful fight for a host of amendments. This brought a hiss from around the gallery which was dominated by women three to one.
…“Ervin, who led the opposition alone through three days of debate, said the amendment will create chaos in the nation’s legal system.
“But the proponents said this simple language of the amendment means equal legal treatment of men as well as women: ‘Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’
“Ervin contended all laws requiring a father to support his legitimate or illegitimate children would be stricken from the books.
“But the amendment’s floor manager Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., said: ‘Most fathers have the primary responsibility of supporting their children not because they are fathers, not because they are men, but because they are the primary source of their family’s income.’
“Ervin said the amendment means the end of laws guaranteeing separate restrooms. Bayh said there are ample constitutional safeguards for this sort of privacy.
“Ervin saw the amendment as a blow to states’ rights. ‘State legislatures will be meaningless zeroes on the map of the nation,’ he said.
“Sen. Marlow Cook, R-Ky., said: ‘I was not aware states maintained their power by legislating discriminating laws against women.’”
This historical news article reports the defeat of an amendment to the ERA by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., that would have exempted women from the draft.
According to this news article:
“‘I believe if women want equal rights they should have them all the way,’ said Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill.
“In effect, senators declined the advice of the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., who said the women’s rights amendment would create ‘great doubt, chaos and confusion’ with the draft and in the military.
“Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., proposed the draft exemption as an amendment to the women’s rights measure. But he urged his colleagues to vote against it ‘if they believe in their heart that women should be drafted and sent into combat where they will be slaughtered and maimed by the bayonets, bombs, bullets, grenades, napalm and poison gas of the enemy.’
“Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., manager of the amendment, did not deny women might see combat duty.
“‘If the country needs them I see no alternative but to require their services,’ he said, and they ‘will answer the call.’
“However, Bayh said, women would be eligible for all service benefits and be assigned as commanders see fit, just as men.
“Mothers could be exempted by federal law if the amendment passed, Bayh continued. And in any event the number of women drafted and assigned to combat duty, if the draft continued, ‘would be significantly less than one per cent,’ he said.
“This would be because some of them could not pass required physical tests such as doing push-ups.”
This editorial from an Ohio newspaper supports the ERA and urges immediate passage by the state legislature.
This editorial states:
“Clearly, the equal rights amendment’s day has come.
“In many states there still are, in 1972, legal restrictions on women buying or selling property or conducting businesses.
“There still are laws setting different ages at which men and women attain legal majority or become eligible for retirement. Some states still have different jail sentences on the books for men and women convicted of identical crimes.
“Work laws and unemployment compensation requirements still treat pregnancy differently from other temporary physical disabilities. Alimony and child-custody laws are notoriously discriminatory.
…“It would be well for Ohio’s image and prestige if the state legislature acts immediately to ratify the prospective 27th Amendment.”
This editorial from an Alabama newspaper opposes the ERA.
This editorial states:
“Were the ‘Women’s Rights’ scheme made part of the federal Constitution, it would deprive women of exemption from military service, of safeguards (dearly won over the past two centuries) against bad conditions and hours of labor, and of benefits at law they now enjoy as mothers, wives, and widows. This is liberation?
“Senator Ervin endeavored in committee to substitute a proposal that would have prevented this eroding of women’s real present rights, and would have recognized physiological and functional differences between the male and female. He was beaten down by his timid or demagogic colleagues, who feared retaliation by the Women’s Liberation zealots.”
This article reports the opinions of women in Portland, Oregon, who opposed the ERA.
According to this historical newspaper article:
“Washington—The Senate vote Wednesday on an equal rights amendment for women sparked a flurry of long distance telephone calls from the Portland area to Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore.
“The calls came from women who voiced strong concern with the amendment’s effect on moral values.
“Hatfield staff members said the approximately 30 calls they received was the greatest number on a single issue since the vote on the supersonic transport.
…“‘They were mostly worried the amendment will destroy family life and would force women into a role they didn’t want,’ said Lyn Jenks, who fielded the calls for Hatfield.”
Historical newspapers are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors get involved in the fight – for or against – the ERA? Please share your stories with us in the comments.