Renewed effort to add Equal Rights Amendment to U.S. Constitution

Members of Congress are proposing a new bipartisan effort to progress the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first introduced in 1923.
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 14, 2023

One hundred years after the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress, the campaign to ratify it is still going.

"Think of it this way: If not for Congress standing in the way, the ERA would already be on the books," Sen. Dick Durbin said.

Suffragist Alice Paul first wrote the ERA in 1920. The amendment aimed to enshrine equal rights for women as the law of the land under the U.S. Constitution. It was first introduced in Congress in 1923, where it sat idle for decades. With the 1960s came the civil rights movement and a renewed energy around women's equality.  

"ERA was an example of social change that they immediately lump together with all the social changes of the '60s that people either applauded or resisted," said author Jane S. De Hart.

And in 1971, the ERA passed in the House and then in the Senate a year later. It read: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

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Congress imposed a seven-year deadline for 38 states to ratify the amendment, tipping off an intense nationwide campaign from supporters, led by feminist icons like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.  

"Women as the chattel, the possession, the thing owned by the man, there's still a lot of that left in the law," Steinem said. "Those are the inequalities that the Equal Rights Amendment would take away."

But they were met with fierce opposition from anti-ERA groups led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.  

"ERA doesn't do anything at all for women. It doesn't give them any benefits, any rights, any opportunities that we don't have now," she said at the time.

Schlafly, who founded the conservative Eagle Forum, argued that the ERA would remove gender protections benefiting housewives, would make women eligible for the military draft and would shift power away from the states to the federal government.  

"She was a brilliant organizer," De Hart said of Schlafly.

After seven years, only 35 states had ratified the ERA. Although Congress extended the deadline for another three years, no other states ratified it in time.  

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In recent years, in the wake of the Me Too movement, the ERA has gained renewed support. And in 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  

Now, members of Congress are proposing a new bipartisan resolution that would erase the seven-year deadline from the ERA, making it eligible for adoption in the constitution.  

"What we're trying to say here is, what has happened in the states should not die in the Senate," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.  

But opponents still echo some of the concerns of Schlafly and the anti-ERA movement of the 1970s.  

"Locker rooms, prisons, hospital rooms, domestic violence shelters and restrooms would allow men into areas where women should feel safe and protected and have privacy," Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said.

With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, De Hart says it's unlikely that the ERA will wind up in the Constitution soon.

"I'm not very sanguine about its passage. And I'm not very sanguine about whether, with the present court, it would make the difference that we always hoped it would," De Hart said.