Forty years ago Thursday the U.S. Senate cleared the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. It’s hard to believe in the current political climate, but the Senate vote was 84 in favor and only eight opposed. Within the first year, 30 of the requisite 38 state legislatures voted to ratify the amendment….and then right-wing opposition coalesced against it, led by Phyllis Schlafly and her Stop ERA organization.
Last year, a longtime friend of mine from Australia came along when I did a television interview in connection with the publication of my book. He was stunned to learn that the U.S. Constitution did not include a protection against discrimination on the basis of sex. What could possibly be the issue after all this time, he wondered?
In 1976, Elly Peterson and Liz Carpenter were recruited to lead ERAmerica, a bipartisan coalition of organizations that supported the amendment. However, despite their efforts, the ratification campaign ultimately failed, even after the original deadline was extended until 1982.
Activists today are now pursuing a “three-state strategy,” arguing that the ratification of the 27th Amendment in 1992 (prohibiting members of Congress from adjusting their salaries until the next session), provides a precedent for an unlimited extenstion of the ratification deadline. In this case, the amendment was ratified 203 years after Congress passed it in 1789. Here is more information on current ratification strategies.
In 1982, at a gathering of women’s groups in Michigan shortly after the ratification deadline passed, Peterson told them, “I am here because I believe the women of my generation let YOU down. . . . I am here, too, to apologize to you because I LET YOU DOWN. I have been far too complacent, believing that an occasional $100 check, letters to politicians or to friends to urge them to help, [and an] exchange of clippings, was a worthwhile contribution. And I learned how miserable I had been–what little effect I had REALLY had–in about two minutes. ”
She described her experience watching young women in Illinois who had been willing to go on a hunger fast in support of the amendment, and added, “And I had had the termerity to think I had been doing something to help!”
She closed with words that resonate for me today, as we continue to wage battles over women’s access to contraception and health care, battles that most of us probably thought were resolved decades ago:
“But to those who have decided the women’s issues are their first priority–to those who have made the sometimes painful decision to be feminists first, I say:
This can be your year to make your voices heard. This can be your year to take the first step to lead instead of accepting. This can be your year to feel the heady sucess of real power where it counts.”