"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
In 1923, this statement was admitted to Congress under the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution granting equality between men and women under the law. If the Era was passed, it would have made unconstitutional any laws that grant one sex different rights than the other. However, in the 1970s, the Era was not passed, and therefore did not become law.
The idea for an equal rights amendment first became acknowledged in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1916, Alice Paul founded the National Women's party (NWP), a political party dedicated to establishing equal rights for women. Traditionally, women were viewed as weaker and inferior to men. The purpose of the ERA was to prohibit any person from acting on this belief. Alice Paul viewed that equality under the law was the foundation essential to full equality for women.
In November of 1922, the NWP voted to work for a federal amendment that could guarantee women's equal rights regardless of legislatures' indecisions. The NWP had 400 women lobbying for equality.
Despite strong opposition by some women and men, the NWP introduced and Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1923. In order to become law, the amendment needed a two-thirds vote in both houses of the congress of the United States, or a supporting petition of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Then the amendment would have required ratification by three-fourths of the states. However, it failed to get the two-thirds majority required to move onto the states for approval. The proposed amendment also failed in following sessions until 1972, when it won a majority vote in Congress.
The main objectives of the women's movement included equal pay for equal work, federal support for day-care centers, recognition of lesbian rights, continued legalization of abortion, and the focus of serious attention on the problems of rape, wife and child beating, and discrimination against older and minority women. The ERA would have addressed all of these issues if it were passed.
Had it been adopted, the ERA would have resolved the paradox of an oppressed majority, by adding to the Constitution a provision that says no person shall be denied any rights on the basis of sex. But ten years after being approved by Congress, the bill died three states shy of thirty-eight needed to ratify.
Defenders in Congress and out of Congress believe that equal rights for women will be neither abandoned nor compromised, but supported until successful. Some of the more conservative supporters of the ERA included Senator Strom Thurman, President Richard Nixon, and Governor George Wallace. Today, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton are also strong supporters of equal rights for women.
At the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the main theme was effort to promote equal rights for women. A speaker for the United States, Madeleine K. Albright, announced that the Clinton administration is determined to bring down the barriers to the equal participation of women that take place in this country. She introduced a seven-point plan of commitments that the United States government plans to take. Although the ERA was denied in the seventies, the new administrations are trying to introduce plans that will exemplify equal rights for women in society.
Opposition to the ERA in the 1970s was similar in some ways to opposition in the 1920s. Conservative politicians and organization voiced strong opposition to the amendment. Phyllis Schlafly, one of the amendment's most vocal opponents, founded STOP ERA, a group that worked to defeat the amendment. "Schlafly argued that the amendment would force women to take on roles normally reserved for the men and that equal rights meant women would give up "privileges" of womanhood." Th ERA was also opposed by many woman who feared the loss of alimony and of exemption of military service.
Although there is no consensus to explain the ERA's defeat, there are several theories. "Many felt that it was a rejection of the feminist ideal of what women ought to be, an ideal that threatened to destroy the American family and sap the strength of a society already crippled by moral permissiveness and political weakness and indecision." Others felt that the Church of Jesus Christ spent great sums of money to defeat the amendment.
Equality for both men and women included the draft. Although women wanted equality in society, they did not want to be included in the draft. One of the most damaging charges was that the ERA would force young women into combat. Children carried signs in front of Congress with the slogan "Please Don't Send My Mommy to War!" Many felt that if a woman went into to war, they were considered to be women-who-want-to-be-men - anomalous persons who rejected the kind of life that nature (G-d and sex) had ordained.
In the January 1983 issue of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem and her coeditors argued that the ERA failed for three reasons: 1) too many people, both men and women, dislike women; 2) most of the majority expressing support in the polls remained contently expectant instead of becoming politically determined; and 3) the opposition was better organized.
Other opposition to the ERA included how the Amendment was to be interpreted. It was felt that giving the Supreme Court and federal agencies authority to spell out the meaning of equal rights would be risky. Decisions made on such a level would be too far removed from the ideas and desires of the people. Opponents felt that equal rights should be dealt with on a local or state level where legislators can be voted out of position if the people do not like some of the decisions made.
Although the ERA did not pass, all of the actions made by NOW, NWP, and any of the other women's movements, have greatly aided women in their battle against sex discrimination in the work place, in educational institutions, and in their roles as wives and mothers, and finally laid to rest the controversy over protective legislation and equal rights. Like the Fourteenth Amendment, we are inclined to forget that the ERA was designed not to change values but to modify behavior of mainstream citizens by changing the constitutional status of a particular group. The ERA's purpose was and is to provide equality of opportunity through the Constitution and legal system for those women who want to realize full personal and professional expectations within mainstream America