On this day in 1972, the United States Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment by a vote of 84-8. Good news, right? Not really, because an amendment to the Constitution has to be ratified by two-thirds (or 38) of the states before it can take effect and when the ratification period was up, it had only garnered the support of 35. Close, but no cigar.
Many people today don’t even know what the ERA is, let alone know that it was authored by the suffragist Alice Paul and originally introduced in Congress in 1923. In 1946 it was narrowly defeated by a Senate vote of 38-35. In 1950, the ERA is passed by the Senate with a rider that nullifies its equal protection aspects. (So, you may ask, what’s the point?) When it finally is passed in 1972, an arbitrary time limit of seven years was set for ratification.
Five years before, the new National Organization for Women (NOW) vowed to fight tirelessly for passage of the ERA and as the clock ticked, it threw itself into the campaign to get enough votes for ratification. At the same time, so did the opposition, headed chiefly by Phyllis Schafly‘s National Committee to Stop ERA.
I remember all the hoopla at the time: seven short and hectic years in which both sides made crazy assertions about what the effects of an ERA would be. Its opponents insisted that it would take away the protections that women traditionally enjoy, from almost always getting custody of the children in the case of a divorce to exemption from the draft. They also contended that there were already plenty of laws in effect that protected women’s rights.
Its proponents, on the other hand, contended that women needed such an amendment so that the protection of their rights would be consistent at all levels of jurisdiction, federal, state and local. They were concerned that the age of majority was different for women than it was for men and that women were routinely discriminated against when it came to gaining employment, establishing credit, buying or selling property or conducting a business.
As it has turned out, the opposition was right on many points. Over the years, many laws have been challenged in the courts and been changed to prevent discrimination against women. Joint custody is the norm. Either sex may be required to pay alimony to the other. Federally-funded schools and programs are required to have the same standards and facilities for women as for men. Women’s participation is up in politics, academia and traditionally male professions. (Not only that, but jobs are no longer allowed to be classified as specifically for men or women.)
But things are not that neat. Women still make only 77 cents to the dollar compared to men. They are often relegated to “pink ghettos”–jobs that are considered to be women’s work and which have fewer benefits and lower pay than traditionally “male” occupations. (A parking lot attendant who is a man, for instance, makes more than a child care attendant who is a woman–showing that we value our cars more than our children.) Laws that have been changed can be changed back. Crimes against women (sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence) are not prosecuted as vigorously as they should be. And a lot of laws on the books still discriminate against women.
The ERA, or the CEA (Constitutional Equality Amendment), has been presented to Congress every year since 1982. But it is apparently no longer even newsworthy. Is it a dead issue? Consider this: Even Afghan women have an Equal Rights Amendment. Why shouldn’t we?
For more information, check out the University of North Carolina’s “Equal Rights Amendment Pathfinder.”