Equal Rights Amendment
The History of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Alice Paul announced that she would be working for a new constitutional amendment, one she authored and initially called the “Lucretia Mott Amendment.” This amendment called for absolute equality stating, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” This amendment was introduced to Congress that same year as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Paul rewrote the proposed amendment in 1943, expanding the language to be more in line with recently passed legislation. Dubbed the “Alice Paul Amendment,” the new amendment stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Many suffragists left public life and activism after the 19th Amendment was enacted, but Alice Paul was not among them. She believed the true battle for legally protected gender equality had yet to be won. With an eye to championing another constitutional amendment, Paul pursued and earned three law degrees (LL.B., LL.M. and D.C.L.) to better understand how legislation and laws were drafted and passed.
During the 1940s, both the Republican party and the Democratic party added the Equal Rights Amendments to their party platforms. The amendment was active in Congress from 1923 forward. The ERA was introduced in every session of Congress. But it was not until 1972 that it passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate and then sent to the states for ratification.
Alice Paul worked tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States and for women’s rights both domestically and internationally. In 1938, Paul begane the World Woman’s Party (WWP), which was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Working closely with the League of Nations, the WWP fought for the inclusion of gender equality into the United Nations Charter, and for the establishment of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Alice Paul moved back to the United States in 1941, continuing to be active in American women’s issues. She led a coalition that was successful in adding a sexual discrimination clause to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The re-emergence of the women’s movement in the late 1960s led to renewed interest in the ERA. During that decade, women’s organizations fought for the ERA to advance to the floor for a vote in both houses of Congress. Finally, in 1972, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the amendment and it went to the states for ratification. However, the achievement was gravely compromised. Congress had placed a time limit of seven years upon the ratification process.
A total of 38 state ratifications were necessary for the ERA to become law, of which the ERA had not reached when the original seven-year time limit came up. Congress voted to extend the time limit for an additional three years, but on the deadline of June 30, 1982, the ERA remained three states shy of the necessary 38.
“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” – Alice Paul, 1972
Since 1982, the ERA has remained important to American women and men. In the 1990s, a team of legal scholars developed a strategy to ratify the ERA. Operating on the belief that if three more states voted to ratify the ERA, and if Congress could remove the original time limit, the Equal Rights Amendment could become law. With years of advocacy and activism on behalf of the ERA, in 2017 the state of Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The following year the state of Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the amendment, and in a historic vote the state legislature of Virginia began their 2020 session with a vote to ratify the ERA.
Mere days after Virginia became the final necessary state to ratify the ERA, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to remove the original time limit assigned to the Equal Rights Amendment. At present, the U.S. Senate has not brought the sister bill, S. J. Res 6, to the floor for a vote.
ERA advocates across the nation are active in campaigns to encourage U.S. Senators to pass S.J. Res 6, removing a legal hurdle from the ERA’s path to ratification to the United States Constitution.
Some points to consider:
- The 19th Amendment, granting women suffrage is the only mention of the word “woman” in the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, the only right guaranteed to women by federal law is the right to vote.
- According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), among full-time, year-round workers, women earn 77% of what men earn. This disparity increases even more for African American and Hispanic women. Additionally, women are half as likely to receive a pension, and those that do receive almost half as much. Social Security still defines women as dependents and therefore women who have been in the workforce for decades still receive lower payments.
- The most important effect of the ERA would be the clarification of the status of sex discrimination for the courts, the decisions of which still demonstrate confusion regarding such claims. For the first time, “sex” would be a suspect classification, like race, and would require the same level of “strict scrutiny” and have to meet the same high level of justification – a “necessary” relation to a “compelling” state interest – as the classification of race.
- The ERA would not make all single-sex institutions unconstitutional – only those whose aim is to perpetuate the historic dominance of one sex over the other. Single-sex institutions that work to overcome past discrimination are currently constitutional and are likely to remain so.
- The 14th Amendment, providing an equal protection clause to all U.S. citizens, was not originally intended to apply to women, as it predates the 19th Amendment. As proof of this, Susan B. Anthony voted in the 1872 presidential election, was arrested two weeks later, and was convicted the following year for illegal voting. At her trial, she attempted to use the 14th Amendment to defend her actions, but the judge ruled that the amendment did not apply to her because she was a woman.
- The Equal Rights Amendment would prevent a rollback of the legal advances women have gained. It is important to remember that as governments change from conservative to liberal, citizens, neither male nor female, should not be subject to lose their right to vote, their right to free speech, or any other of their constitutional rights due to a change of political opinion.
- The ERA does not add new laws to the U.S. Constitution, it only guarantees the rights currently within it. Issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, and the female draft exist separately from the ERA and would not become law upon the ERA’s passage.
- The ERA is an amendment for both men and women – it is not just a woman’s issue. Issues of custody, employment, and fair wages are important to both sexes and an Equal Rights Amendment would guarantee equal legal rights without regard to sex.
- The ERA would affirm the purpose that began with the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the basic human right of constitutional protection.