Shaping a New America: The Equal Rights Amendment
By the middle of the 20th century, women had made great strides politically, professionally, and socially. Many pieces of legislation guaranteed their right to vote, their right to be hired in any job regardless of sex, and their right to equal pay. But feminists wanted to bring all of these individual acts under one umbrella--they wanted an Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing those rights for all time. They wanted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
An Equal Rights Amendment was drafted which stated: (1) Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex; (2) The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of the article; and (3) This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification. Organizations like NOW began a hard push for ERA in 1970. Feminist activists like Gloria Steinem addressed the legislature and provided argument after argument supporting the measure. The House approved the bill in 1970. The Senate followed in 1972 , and the fate of the amendment was then in the hands of the states. There was a seven year time limit imposed for acceptance.
Women from all ranks of life joined the struggle. They held marches, gave speeches, and wrote pamphlets. ERA supporters established early momentum and public opinion showed strong support for the bill. Thirty of the thirty-eight states needed for ratification quickly accepted it. But then, the tide turned; and from nowhere came a highly organized, determined opposition led by Phyllis Schlafly, a constitutional lawyer, conservative activist, author, and founder of the Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group that labels itself pro-family and focuses on social issues. Schlafly argued that ratification of ERA would lead to the complete unraveling of American society.
The Adversaries: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Equal Rights Amendment
With the Amendment well on its way to passage, Schlafly appealed to conservative groups to intervene and stop the momentum.She predicted that ERA would harm women by imposing three "Horribles" on them. It would (1) take away gender-specific privileges under Social Security; (2) lead to women being drafted by the military; and (3) bring about public unisex bathrooms.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then the first tenured law professor at Columbia University and Coordinator of the Women's Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, carefully refuted each of Schlafly's "Horribles". As to "Horrible #1", she said that wives would only lose their right to support if legislatures or courts were to act capriciously, spitefully, without regard for public welfare, and in flagrant disregard of the intent of the amendment's proponents. Concerning "Horrible #2", she pointed out that women would be forced to serve in the military only if men were, and assignments would be made on the basis of individual capacity rather than sex. And to "Horrible #3", the fear of unisex bathrooms, she said that proponents of the amendment in Congress were amused at the focus on "potty problems", and referred to the constitutional regard for personal privacy. They suggested the solution to the problem--if it were a problem--would be to adopt the approach successfully implemented by the airlines.
"In sum," Bader Ginsburg said, "the Equal Rights Amendment would dedicate the nation to a new view of the rights and responsibilities of men and women. It firmly rejects sharp legislative lines between the sexes as constitutionally tolerable. Instead, it looks toward a legal system in which each person will be judged on the basis of individual merit and not on the basis of an unalterable trait of birth that bears no necessary relationship to need or ability".
The anti-amendment crusade pressed on. Stop ERA advocates even baked apple pies for the Illinois legislature while they debated the bill. They hung signs saying "Don't Draft Me" on baby girls, and in the end, their strategy worked. The amendment was narrowly defeated, having ratification in 35 of the 38 states needed. Critics called Schlafly a hypocrite for fighting against ERA. While she argued that women should be full time wives and mothers, she herself was a lawyer, newspaper editor, and political activist. She was able to have it all, yet she fought those who helped her get it all. The defeat of the ERA marked the end of an era for feminist groups. Those who had joined together: the professionals, the ordinary people, the political activists, and all their supporters put down their banners, stopped their marches, and walked away. They had lost their intensity.
The struggle for improving the position of women in a male-dominated world did not end with the decline of group involvement. As coalitions dissolved, individual women grabbed the baton and ran with it. They were able to make significant cracks in the so-called glass ceiling", establishing themselves as leaders in almost every aspect of American life: law, politics, medicine, education, broadcasting, entertainment, and even the military. They didn't just overcome. They prevailed.
Next: The Changing Image of Women in the Movies
From Doris Day to Buffy the Vampire Slayer
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