Failure of the Equal Rights Amendment: The Feminist Fight of the 1970s

Today’s post comes from Marisa Hawley, intern in the National Archives Strategy and Communications office.

As part of the “six weeks of style” celebration to recognize the Foundation for the National Archives’ partnership with DC Fashion Week, we are showcasing fashion-related records from our holdings. This week’s fashion theme is Get Your 1970s Groove On.

Women's Suffrage Day in Fountain Square, 08/1973. (National Archives Identifier 553307)

Women’s Suffrage Day in Fountain Square, 08/1973. (National Archives Identifier 553307)

After the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, suffragette Alice Paul felt that this right alone was not enough to eradicate gender discrimination in the United States. In 1923, she drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which read:

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.

These seemingly simple words wielded enormous implications. Since its conception, the ERA has been a source of unremitting debate over whether or not total equality between men and women is worth the sacrifice of certain legislative protection. In fact, from 1923 to 1970, some form of the amendment was introduced in every session of Congress but was usually held up in committee and never put to a vote.

To get the ERA out of committee, Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan filed a petition to demand that the amendment be heard by the full House. She successfully captured the 218 needed votes by lobbying members from both parties and securing help of then-Congressman Gerald Ford to secure the final votes needed for passage.

The Joint Resolution was adopted by the house on October 12, 1971, and the following spring it was adopted by the Senate on March 22, 1972.

Martha Griffiths at ERA rally in Houston, Texas, 1977. (ARC Identifier 7452294)

Martha Griffiths at ERA rally in Houston, Texas, 1977. (ARC Identifier 7452294)

Section one 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

Because amending the Constitution is a two-step process, the ERA still needed to be ratified by three-forth of the state legislatures even though it had passed through Congress. At first, there was strong public support for passage—by 1973, 30 of the necessary 38 states ratified the amendment.

Groups like the National Organization of Women (NOW) were compelling advocates for the ERA, claiming that its passage was necessary because the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that the rights it protects are held equally by all citizens regardless of gender and it would provide a clearer judicial standard for deciding cases of sex discrimination.

Photograph of Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Posters on the Back of a Station Wagon, c. 1977. (ARC Identifier 7452296)

Photograph of Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Posters on the Back of a Station Wagon, c. 1977. (ARC Identifier 7452296)

After 1973, however, a highly organized opposition to the ERA emerged, suggesting that ratification would prove to be detrimental to women.

Opponents argued that passing the amendment would do away with protective laws like sexual assault and alimony, eliminate the tendency for mothers to receive child custody in a divorce case, and immediately make the all-male military draft unconstitutional.

By 1982, the year of expiration, only 35 of the necessary 38 states voted in favor of the ERA—three states short of ratification.

More information about Martha Griffiths and the ERA.

And check out one of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation nearly 90 years after its conception at the National Archives’ Records of Rights exhibit—the debate still simmers today!

Examine more “signature styles” and history-making signatures in our current exhibition, “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

This entry was posted in - Civil Rights, - Women's Rights, News and Events, The 1970s, U.S. House and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.