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The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women. The ERA was originally written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. In 1923, it was introduced in the Congress for the first time. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress and went to the state legislatures for ratification.
The resolution in Congress that proposed the amendment set a ratification deadline of March 22, 1979. Through 1977, the amendment received 35 of the necessary 38 state ratifications. Five states later rescinded their ratifications before the 1979 deadline, though the validity of these rescissions is disputed. In 1978, a joint resolution of Congress extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982, but no further states ratified the amendment before the passing of the second deadline. Several feminist organizations, disputing the validity and/or the permanence of the ratification deadline, and also disputing the validity of the five rescissions, continue to work at the federal and state levels for the adoption of the ERA.
Section 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.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Following the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women throughout the United States the unabridged right to vote, Alice Paul, a suffragist leader, argued that this right alone would not end discrimination based upon sex. Paul drafted the Equal Rights Amendment and, in 1923, presented it as the "Lucretia Mott Amendment" at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments.
Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Upon its introduction, the Equal Rights Amendment stirred up debate about the direction of the ideology and tactics of the women's movement. The National Woman's Party supported the amendment, arguing that women should be on equal terms with men in all regards, even if that means sacrificing certain benefits given to women through protective legislation, such as shorter work hours. However, opponents of the amendment believed that these gender-based benefits protected women as they entered new spheres, such as the work industry, and that the loss of such protection would not be worth the supposed gain in equality. In 1924, The Forum hosted a debate between Doris Stevens and Alice Hamilton concerning these two perspectives on the proposed amendment. Their debate reflected the wider tension in the developing feminist movement of the early 20th century between two approaches towards the equality of gender. One approach emphasized shared similarities between the sexes and demanded rights based on women's humanity. The other approach emphasized women's unique experiences and how they were different from men to obtain recognition for their specific needs.
The National Woman's Party already had tested its approach in Wisconsin, where it won the first state ERA in 1921. It then took the proposed federal ERA to Congress in the 1920s, where Senator Charles Curtis, a future Vice President, and Representative Daniel R. Anthony, Jr.—Susan B. Anthony's nephew, both Kansas Republicans, introduced it for the first time as Senate Joint Resolution No. 21 on December 10, 1923, and as House Joint Resolution No. 75 on December 13, 1923, respectively. Though the ERA was introduced in every Congressional session between 1923 and 1970, it almost never reached the floor of either the Senate or the House for a vote—instead, it was usually "bottled up" in committee. Exceptions occurred in 1946, when it was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 38 to 35 and, in 1950 and 1953, when it was passed by the Senate with the Hayden Rider, making it unacceptable to ERA supporters. The Hayden Rider said:
The provisions of this article shall not be construed to impair any rights, benefits, or exemptions now or hereafter conferred by law upon persons of the female sex.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower asked a joint session of Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the first President to show such a level of support for the amendment. However, whenever the ERA was proposed the Hayden Rider was added; this would make the amendment unacceptable to the National Woman's Party, who would then ask that the ERA be withdrawn.
The Republican Party included support of the ERA in its platform beginning in 1940, renewing the plank every four years until 1980. The ERA was strongly opposed by the American Federation of Labor and other labor unions, who feared the amendment would invalidate protective labor legislation for women. The Equal Rights Amendment was also opposed by Eleanor Roosevelt and most New Dealers. They felt that ERA was designed for middle class women but that working class women needed government protection. They feared that ERA would undercut the male-dominated labor unions that were a core component of the New Deal coalition. Most northern Democrats, who aligned themselves with the anti-ERA labor unions, opposed the amendment. The ERA was supported by southern Democrats and almost all Republicans.
In 1944, the Democrats made the divisive step of including the ERA in their platform, but the Democratic Party did not become united in favor of the amendment until Congressional passage in 1972. The main support base for the ERA until the late 1960s was among middle class Republican women. The League of Women Voters, formerly the National American Woman Suffrage Association, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment until 1972, fearing the loss of protective labor legislation. Despite this, the amendment kept in line with the views of women's rights advocated by early feminists like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1961, feminists encouraged the newly elected President John F. Kennedy to support the ERA. Though Kennedy was elected on a pro-ERA platform and took a position favoring the amendment in a letter to Mrs. Emma Guffey Miller, the chairman of the National Woman's Party, he did not speak out in favor of the amendment due to his ties to labor. Esther Peterson, a feminist and the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment which she thought might weaken protective labor legislation. Peterson referred to the National Woman's Party members, most of them veteran suffragists and preferred the "specific bills for specific ills" approach to equal rights.
As a concession to pro-ERA feminists, Kennedy appointed a blue-ribbon commission on women, the President's Commission on the Status of Women, to investigate the problem of sex discrimination in the United States. The Commission was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt who dropped her opposition to the ERA in the 1950s to support the United Nations Charter and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which had similar language. In the early 1960s, Roosevelt announced that, due to unionization, she believed the ERA was no longer a threat to women as it once may have been and told supporters that they could have the amendment if they wanted it. The Commission helped win passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which banned sex discrimination in pay in a number of professions (it would later be amended in the early 1970s, at the demand of feminists, to include the professions it initially excluded) and secured an Executive Order from Kennedy eliminating sex discrimination in the civil service. The commission, made largely of anti-ERA feminists with ties to labor, proposed remedies to the widespread sex discrimination it unearthed and in its 1963 final report held that on the issue of equality "a constitutional amendment need not now be sought".
The commission established state and local commissions on the status of women and arranged for follow-up conferences in the years to come. The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned workplace discrimination not only on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, but also on the basis of sex, thanks to the lobbying of Alice Paul and Coretta Scott King and the skillful politicking of Representative Martha W. Griffiths of Michigan.
A new women's movement gained ground in the later 1960s as a result of a variety of factors: Betty Friedan's bestseller The Feminine Mystique; the network of women's rights commissions formed by Kennedy's national commission; the frustration over women's social and economic status; and anger over the lack of government and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII the Civil Rights Act. In June 1966, at the Third National Conference on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., Betty Friedan and a group of activists frustrated with the lack of government action in enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act formed the National Organization for Women to act as an "NAACP for women", demanding full equality for American women. In 1967, at the urging of Alice Paul, NOW endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment. The decision caused some union Democrats and social conservatives to leave the organization and form the Women's Equity Action League (within a few years WEAL also endorsed the ERA), but the move to support the amendment benefited NOW, bolstering its membership. By the late 1960s NOW had made significant political and legislative victories and was gaining enough power to become a major lobbying force. In 1969, newly elected Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York gave her famous speech "Equal Rights for Women" on the floor of Congress.
In February 1970, NOW picketed the United States Senate, a subcommittee of which was holding hearings on a Constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to eighteen. Feminists disrupted the hearings demanding a hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment and won a meeting with Senators to discuss the ERA. That August, an estimated 20,000 American women held a nationwide Women's Strike for Equality to demand full social, economic, and political equality. Said Friedan of the strike, "All kinds of women's groups all over the country will be using this week on August 26 particularly, to point out those areas in women's life which are still not addressed. For example, a question of equality before the law; we are interested in the Equal Rights Amendment." Despite being centered in New York City—which was regarded as one of the biggest strongholds for NOW and other groups sympathetic to the women's liberation movement such as Redstockings—and having a number of participants which were small in contrast to the large-scale anti-war and civil rights protests that had occurred in the recent time prior to the event, the strike was credited as one of the biggest turning points in the rise of second-wave feminism.
In Washington, D.C., protesters presented a sympathetic Senate leadership with a petition for the Equal Rights Amendment at the U.S. Capitol. Influential news sources such as Time also supported the cause of the protestors. Soon after the strike took place, influential feminist literature spread across the country as well. In 1970, Congressional hearings began on the ERA.
Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan achieved success on Capitol Hill with her House Joint Resolution No. 208, which was adopted by the House on October 12, 1971, with a vote of 354 yeas, 24 nays and 51 not voting. Griffiths's joint resolution was then adopted by the Senate on March 22, 1972, with a vote of 84 yeas, 8 nays and 7 not voting. The Senate version, drafted by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, passed after an amendment proposed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina that would exempt women from the draft was defeated. President Richard Nixon immediately endorsed the ERA's approval upon its adoption by the 92nd Congress.
The initial pace of state legislative ratifications was rapid; 30 states had done so by the end of 1973. The rate of ratification then slowed considerably. Only 5 more states ratified the ERA over the course of the ensuing 4 years, with none coming after 1977. There were no ratifications after 1977, which left the amendment 3 states shy of the number needed in order for it to be certified as an operative part of the Constitution as the March 22, 1979 ratification deadline approached. As of that original deadline the ERA had been ratified by the following states:
Legislators in the following states voted to rescind their earlier ratification of the ERA:
The Constitution is silent regarding whether the governor of a state has any authority regarding whether that state ratifies an amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution is likewise silent regarding a state's authority to rescind its ratification of a proposed, but not yet adopted, constitutional amendment.
At various times, in 9 of the 15 non-ratifying states, at least 1 chamber of the legislature approved the ERA, those 9 states being:
In 1978—as the 1979 deadline approached—the 95th Congress adopted House Joint Resolution No. 638 (H. J. Res. 638), by Representative Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, which purported to extend the ERA's ratification deadline to June 30, 1982. H. J. Res. 638 received less than two-thirds of the vote (a simple majority, not a supermajority) in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; for that reason, ERA supporters deemed it necessary that H. J. Res. 638 be transmitted to then President Jimmy Carter for signature as a safety precaution. Carter signed the joint resolution, though he questioned—on procedural grounds—the propriety of his doing so. During this disputed extension, no additional states ratified or rescinded.
No additional states ratified the ERA during that extra period of slightly more than three years. On June 18, 1980, a resolution in the Illinois House of Representatives resulted in a vote of 102-71 in favor, but Illinois required a three-fifths majority on constitutional amendments and so the measure failed by five votes. In 1982, seven female ERA supporters went on a hunger strike and seventeen chained themselves to the door of the Illinois senate chamber; none of this resulted in any state ratifications. The closest the ERA came to gaining an additional ratification between the original deadline of March 22, 1979 and the revised June 30, 1982, expiration date was when it was approved by the Florida House of Representatives on June 21, 1982. In the final week before the deadline, that ratifying resolution was defeated in the Florida Senate by a vote of 16 yeas and 22 nays. Even if Florida had ratified the ERA, the proposed amendment would still have been two states short of the required 38 (seven states short if the rescissions were valid).
According to research by Professor Jules B. Gerard, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, of the 35 legislatures that passed ratification resolutions, 24 explicitly referred to the 1979 deadline.
On December 23, 1981, in Idaho v. Freeman, the United States District Court for the District of Idaho ruled that the rescissions—all of which occurred before the original 1979 ratification deadline—were valid and that the ERA's deadline extension was unconstitutional. The National Organization for Women appealed both rulings. The Administrator of General Services noted that the ERA had not received the required number of ratifications (38), so that "the Amendment has failed of adoption no matter what the resolution of the legal issues presented here." On October 4, 1982, in NOW v. Idaho, 459 U.S. 809 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court declared the entire matter moot on the grounds that the ERA was dead for the reason given by the Administrator of General Services.
Political momentum changed during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Playing on the anti-war fervor that resulted from the Vietnam War, opponents of the ERA sought to ensure its defeat by pointing out that the amendment would eliminate the men-only draft requirement and guarantee the possibility that women would be subject to conscription and be required to have military combat roles in future wars if it were passed. Defending traditional gender roles, Stop ERA advocates baked apple pies for the Illinois state legislature while they debated the amendment and hung "don't draft me" signs on infant girls. They also pointed out that the amendment would repeal protective laws like sexual assault and alimony and eliminate the tendency for mothers to obtain custody over their children in divorce cases. It was suggested that single-sex bathrooms would be eliminated if the amendment were passed as well. The strategy proved to be a success.
At the 1980 Republican National Convention, the Republican Party platform was amended to end its support for the ERA. The most prominent opponent of the ERA was Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Republican lawyer. Leading the Stop ERA campaign, Schlafly defended traditional gender roles and would often heckle feminists by opening her speeches with lines like, "I'd like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight." When Schlafly began her campaign in 1972, public polls showed support for the amendment was widely popular and thirty states had ratified the amendment by 1973. After 1973, the number of ratifying states slowed to a trickle. Critchlow and Stachecki argue that public opinion in key states shifted against the ERA as opponents, operating on the local and state levels, won over the public. The state legislators in battleground states followed public opinion in rejecting the ERA.
Many ERA supporters blamed their defeat on special interest forces, especially the insurance industry and conservative organizations, suggesting they funded an opposition that subverted the democratic process and the will of the pro-ERA majority. They argued that while the public face of the anti-ERA movement was Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA organization, there were other important groups in the opposition as well, such as the powerful National Council of Catholic Women and (until 1973) the AFL–CIO. Opposition to the amendment was particularly high among religious conservatives, who argued that the amendment would guarantee universal abortion rights and the right for homosexual couples to marry. Critchlow and Stachecki say the anti-ERA movement was based on strong support among Southern whites, Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Roman Catholics, including both men and women.
A black critic of the ERA was the Texas State Representative Clay Smothers of Dallas, who criticized the national convention held in Houston in 1977 to promote feminist causes. "I have had enough civil rights to choke a hungry goat. I ask for victory over the perverts in this country. I want the right to segregate my family from these misfits and perverts," Smothers told a social conservative rally held at the Astrodome in opposition to the feminist convention.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, proponents of the ERA launched a three-state strategy to win ratification of the ERA by the legislatures of states that did not ratify it in 1972–1982. This campaign was developed through the efforts of the ERA Summit, a volunteer coalition organized in Washington, DC in 1991, and based upon the assertion that
Congress has the power to adjust or repeal the previous time limit on the ERA, determine whether state ratifications subsequent to 1982 are valid, and accept the ERA as part of the Constitution after three more states ratify. The 35 existing ratifications should stand because precedent regarding state rescissions shows that such actions have not been accepted as valid.
The three-state strategy was publicly unveiled at a press conference held in Washington, D.C., in December 1993. Early the following year, Representative Robert E. Andrews, Democrat from New Jersey, introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to require that "when the legislatures of an additional three states ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the House of Representatives shall take any legislative action necessary to verify the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment as a part of the Constitution." No action was taken on the resolution. Since then, proponents of the three-state strategy have promoted ratification resolutions in the legislatures of most of the 15 states that never ratified the ERA approved by Congress in 1972. Ratification resolutions have been introduced in several state legislatures, but none have given it their full approval.
In 1996, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service issued a report that said, "There is no precedent for Congress promulgating an amendment based on state ratifications adopted after a ratification deadline has expired. However, proponents of this course cite as possible precedent the ratification activity of the states regarding the 27th Amendment... proponents of the ERA might wish to adopt a strategy of urging its ratification by state legislatures because their actions might prompt this or a future Congress to proclaim the amendment had been ratified." CRS stressed that it "takes no position on any of the issues."
Opponents of the three-state strategy point out that the 1789 resolution proposing what is now the Twenty-seventh Amendment did not contain a deadline for ratification. This amendment was ratified in 1992, more than 202 years after Congress submitted it to the states for ratification.
On July 7, 2009, at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol to announce the reintroduction of the ERA in Congress, activists supporting the three-state strategy distributed a flyer opposing reintroduction, saying "this is not the time to start over and ignore the work ERA advocates have already done."
The amendment has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since 1982. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) championed it in the Senate during the 99th Congress through the 110th Congress. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the amendment symbolically at the end of the 111th Congress and has supported it in the 112th Congress. In the House of Representatives, Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) has sponsored it since the 105th Congress, most recently in May 2011.
In 1983, the ERA passed through House committees with the same text as in 1972; however, it failed by six votes to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote on the House floor. That was the last time that the ERA received a floor vote in the Congress.
At the start of the 112th Congress on January 6, 2011, Senator Menendez, along with Representatives Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Gwen Moore, held a press conference advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment's adoption.
On March 8, 2011, the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation (H.J.Res. 47) to remove the Congressionally imposed deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Bill co-sponsors include Representatives Robert Andrews (D-NJ), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). On March 22, 2012, the 40th anniversary of ERA's congressional approval, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) introduced (S.J. Res. 39)--which is worded with slight differences from Representative Baldwin's (H.J. Res. 47). Senator Cardin was joined by ten other Senators who added their names to the Senate Joint Resolution.
On February 24, 2013, the New Mexico House of Representatives adopted House Memorial 7 asking, also, that the Congressionally imposed deadline for ERA ratification be removed. House Memorial 7 was officially received by the U.S. House of Representatives on April 25, 2013, and was referred to the House's Committee on the Judiciary, as noted in the Congressional Record.
Many states have adopted constitutions or constitutional amendments providing that equal rights under the law shall not be denied because of sex. Most of these provisions mirror the broad language of the ERA. The wording in others resembles the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The 1879 Constitution of California contains the earliest state equal rights provision on record. Narrowly written, it limits the equal rights conferred to "entering or pursuing a business, profession, vocation, or employment." Near the end of the 19th century two more states, Wyoming (1890) and Utah (1896), included equal rights provisions in their constitutions. These provisions were broadly written to insure political and civil equality to women. Several states crafted and adopted their own equal rights amendments during the 1970s and 1980s, while the ERA was before the states; an outgrowth of the effort to win its ratification. Many more have done so since; an outgrowth of the continued drive for greater personal and political equality in American society.
Examples of state Equal Rights Amendments:
Alaska – No person is to be denied the enjoyment of any civil or political right because of race, color, creed, sex or national origin. The legislature shall implement this section. Alaska Constitution, Article I, §3 (1972)
California – A person may not be disqualified from entering or pursuing a business, profession, vocation, or employment because of sex, race, creed, color, or national or ethnic origin. California Constitution, Article I, §8 (1879)
Colorado – Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the state of Colorado or any of its political subdivisions because of sex. Colorado Constitution, Article II, §29 (1973)
Illinois - The equal protection of the laws shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex by the State or its units of local government and school districts. Illinois Constitution, Article I, §18 (1970)
Iowa – All men and women are, by nature, free and equal and have certain inalienable rights—among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness. Iowa Constitution, Article I, §1 (1998)
Maryland – Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied because of sex. Maryland Constitution, Declaration of Rights, Article 46 (1972)
Montana – Individual dignity. The dignity of the human being is inviolable. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws. Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas. Montana Constitution, Article II, §4 (1973)
Utah – The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges. Utah Constitution, Article IV, §1 (1896)
Wyoming – In their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal. Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality, the laws of this state affecting the political rights and privileges of its citizens shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever other than the individual incompetency or unworthiness duly ascertained by a court of competent jurisdiction. The rights of citizens of the state of Wyoming to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall equally enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges. Wyoming Constitution, Articles I and VI (1890)