Tag Archives: Liz Carpenter

Forty Years and Counting. . . .

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.”



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Forty Years of the National Women’s Political Caucus

Forty years ago this month, 300 women gathered at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Washington to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

In her memoir Getting Better All the Time, Liz Carpenter recalled, “It was a day that changed my life.” If she had not gotten so involved, she wrote, “I would have missed out on so much, so many friendships with remarkable women of all income levels, so much learning as we hammered at the doors of Congress and the legislatures, so much understanding of my own country and how the other great movements for fairness and equality took place.”

By the end of that weekend, the caucus had committed itself to diversity—and that included Republican women.

Betty Friedan tried to recruit Elly Peterson to attend the founding meeting, but Peterson declined. Friedan wanted Peterson, she wrote a few years later, because she “had been the most powerful woman in the Republican party—its traditionally powerless lady vice-chairman.” She was among the “politically oriented women who hadn’t been interested in women’s rights before” who “were ready now to organize such a caucus.”

Initially, Peterson decided, as she wrote a friend, that the gathering was “definitely just the same women’s lib people,” and chose not to attend. But after the founding meeting, when she saw that more moderate women like Carpenter and Virginia Allan, a former president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, were involved, she changed her mind. When the caucus immediately set out to recruit more Republican leaders, Peterson joined its first National Council.

The caucus formed two task forces, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, and both worked to involve more women in their party’s presidential nominating conventions, and to encourage more women to run for public office. Peterson and Carpenter became close friends, and five years later were recruited to serve as co-chairs of ERAmerica, the coalition of organizations that worked for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Sadly, that bipartisan approach would not survive for long. As Carpenter recalled, “One of the real cruelties of history is that after Elly Peterson, Betty Ford and Jill Ruckelshaus had brought many bright young Republican women in—it was Ronald Reagan who ran them off when he stopped the ERA plank” at the 1980 Republican National Convention “and abandoned the fight for choice. We needed them. They were well-educated, competent and potential candidates for public office. Many are now dropouts from politics.”

There will be much to celebrate when the NWPC gathers again in Washington this coming weekend to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Forty years ago there was only one women serving in the U.S. Senate and only 13 in the U.S. House. In 2011, there were 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House. Still no one is ready to declare victory. In the last election cycle the numbers actually declined, though women have since won two special elections for open congressional seats.

In 1977, First Ladies Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, Democrats Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Liz Carpenter and Republicans Elly Peterson and Jill Ruckelshaus all joined upraised hands together in front of a banner supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. One could not possibly imagine  Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann doing the same thing together today.

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