American women won the right to vote in 1920, but equal rights? That is one goal that is still out of reach, despite recent efforts to revive the never-ratified Equal Rights Amendment.
The debate over equal rights for women in America has raged ever since the words “All Men Are Created Equal” became part of the Declaration of Independence. The first version of the Equal Rights Amendment to gain traction in Washington was written by suffragists Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, and introduced to Congress in 1923, just three years after women won the right to vote, but the amendment failed to get the support it needed.
The history of the amendment is complicated. The Republican Party embraced the ERA and added it to their platform in 1940, where it remained a policy plank until the 1970s. The Democratic Party was more reluctant. Some labor and women’s rights organizations opposed the amendment. First Lady and social justice advocate Eleanor Roosevelt was an outspoken opponent. The League of Women Voters, formerly the National American Woman Suffrage Association, expressed concern that it would eliminate the gains women had already made, by stripping away workplace protections.
The second attempt to pass the ERA in the 1970s gained the support of the Democratic Party but equal rights remained a divisive issue. On August 10, 1970, Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Martha Griffiths reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment. This time, it was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and submitted to the state legislatures for ratification in 1972, the Constitutional requirement for amendments, dictated by Article V.
It’s a short amendment, with just three sections. The main one is: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The states were given seven years to ratify the amendment. At the end of that time only 35 of the required 38 states had acted, and four states that initially ratified the amendment rescinded their votes. In 1978, the deadline was extended until 1982, but there still weren’t enough votes to ratify the amendment.
Recent efforts to revive the amendment in the hyper-partisan world of 21st-century politics seem largely symbolic. In 1980, the Republican Party removed the ERA from its party platform. Today, the Democratic Party has united to embrace the ERA, while the Republicans led the opposition.
The ERA has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since 1982, with no success. Recently, the legislatures of Illinois, Nevada and Virginia have ratified the expired amendment, finally bringing the total to 38.
On February 13, the House approved a bill to remove the deadline and finally ratify the amendment. However, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that he will oppose any effort to revive the amendment in the Senate, while the Trump’s administration’s Office of Legal Counsel has stated that it considers the ERA expired.
That expiration hasn’t prevented controversy from erupting this month. In a hair-on-fire February 24 editorial in the conservative publication The Federalist, Heritage Foundation Executive Director Thomas Jipping warns that ratifying the ERA would lead to the courts “ruining the country,” and that it would spell the end of Mother’s Day.
For many Republican legislators, the real concern isn’t a collapse of the greeting card and florist industries due to the end of Mother’s Day, the real fear is that equal rights would give women a stronger claim to reproductive rights.
Jipping has an unexpected ally in opposing efforts to revive the expired amendment: Supreme Court Justice and lifelong women’s rights advocate Ruth Baden Ginsburg.
Ginsburg has repeatedly stated in recent years that she does not see this as the time for the ERA, and that the process needs a new start. “I hope someday it will be put back in the political hopper, starting over again, collecting the necessary number of states to ratify it, “she said at a recent Georgetown University event
And thanks to Ginsburg, the ERA is more of a formality than a necessity. That’s because, through years of litigation, this Supreme Court Justice has worked to prove that the Constitution already gives women most of the protections sought by the amendment: “Equality of rights under the law [that] shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”