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Equal Rights Amendment: Definition, History, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and significance of the Equal Rights Amendment and test your understanding of American history, the politics of equality, and American activism.

Equality for All

In the twenty-first century, the idea of an equality amendment seems like something from history. The consensus amongst contemporary Americans is that equality is a given. So you may be surprised to know that something called the Equal Rights Amendment has never been added to the United States Constitution.

Protest art about inequality for women given to Betty Ford
Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposed amendment to the US Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women and outlaw discrimination based on sex. It was first proposed in 1923 and passed both houses of Congress in 1972, but failed to achieve 3/4 ratification by the states. Although many states have since adopted an equal rights amendment into state constitutions, this amendment is not part of the United States Constitution.

Background

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified and added to the United States Constitution, legally giving women the right to vote. The major suffragist leader Alice Paul celebrated the victory by taking the next step and drafting an amendment that would make all discrimination based on sex illegal. In 1923, her Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress, after being tested and adopted by the state of Wisconsin in 1921. The amendment was wrapped up in political and legal battles for years, finally being voted on (and defeated) in 1946.

Suffragists including Alice Paul on right
Alice Paul

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to actively support the Equal Rights Amendment, and asked Congress to pass it. One of the big problems was the Hayden Rider, an addition made in 1953 which granted established women as a separate category from men in terms of legal rights and criminal action. The Hayden Rider granted women rights, but only as a separate legal group, undermining the idea of equality. Congress was willing to pass the Equal Rights Amendment with the Hayden Rider, but women's rights groups were not.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

The Equal Rights Amendment was supported and opposed by a wide array of people. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, opposed the bill because she felt that women's rights had to be addressed as a class issue first, and that the amendment only benefited middle class women. Esther Peterson, the highest-ranking woman in JFK's administration, opposed it for fear that it would weaken labor rights movements of the time and a general opposition to blanket policies, preferring a 'specific bills for specific ills' approach to equal rights. Eleanor Roosevelt later changed her mind in the 1960s and said that unionization had resolved the class issue and the amendment was now safe for women. Betty Ford, First Lady and wife of President Gerald Ford, became a vocal and active supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Congress vs. States

A series of protests and strikes in 1970 led Congress to re-address the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1972, it finally passed both the Senate and House of Representatives in a format that women's rights advocates agreed with. Now, 3/4 of the states had to ratify, or approve, the amendment to make it a legal addition to the United States Constitution. By 1973, 30 states had done so. The ratification had to occur by 1979 or the amendment expired, and as the deadline approached they were 3 states short. 5 states had also rescinded, or retracted, their original decision to ratify. The legality of these has been debated ever since. Supporters of the amendment did manage to get the deadline extended to 1982, but still fell short of the 3/4 number needed to adopt the amendment

Rally for Equal Rights Amendment supporters
ERA march

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