What Ever Happened to the ERA?

National Organization for Women Equal Rights Amendment Image : University of Florida Digital Collections

I didn’t realize that the Equal Rights Amendment had never been ratified until a few years ago. I managed to make it through all of high school (including an AP US History class) and most of college before it sunk in that equal treatment for women was not a part of the constitution. I didn’t know much about it except that it was an amendment ensuring equal rights for women, which I sort of just assumed was law.  

I figured it out while I was reading another article about something related to feminism which mentioned the ERA in a super nonchalant way. So I Googled it, felt pretty embarrassed for not knowing, and kept reading.

I thought about it again more recently, and though I’m still pretty embarrassed about it, I don’t believe I’m the only one who didn’t know. After all, my Google search didn’t return any really in-depth results, mostly timelines and outdated-looking websites advocating for a redo. So I set out to do some actual research and let a few more people know that, as wild as it sounds, the United States government never got enough states to enact an amendment to the constitution saying women should be equal to men.

This is the full text of the amendment:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Obviously if this were up for ratification today, I’d expect some adjustments to the language to account for persons of all genders, but overall it seems pretty straightforward. So what happened?

The Equal Rights Amendment was originally written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. It was introduced to Congress for the first time in 1923 as the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” which asserted that “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

It was unsuccessfully introduced in every session of Congress until 1972, when it was reworded to say “on account of sex” instead of “men and women.” At that point, it was up to the states to ratify it. Three-fourths of the states need to ratify an amendment for it to become law, so 38 was the magic number and it had to be reached before a seven-year deadline.

That year 22 states ratified the amendment, but subsequent years didn’t bring the necessary momentum to reach the deadline. There seem to be a number of reasons for the opposition, some obvious and some less so.

Phyllis Shlafly
Phyllis Schlafly

Once the ERA had passed through congress, a woman named Phyllis Schlafly led a group called STOP ERA in a movement against the amendment. She was a fierce advocate for women being restrained to ‘traditional’ roles in society despite being a lawyer and a career woman herself. *heavy sigh*

What’s interesting, though, is that when you take a closer look at certain parts of their arguments against ‘equal treatment under the law,’ they seem to be worth serious consideration: mainly that ‘equal treatment’ under the Constitution could mean doing away with laws that protect women.

In 1950 and 1953, the ERA made it through the Senate with a provision known as “the Hayden rider,” which made room for women to keep existing and future protections under the law, saying, “The provisions of this article shall not be construed to impair any rights, benefits, or exemptions now or hereafter conferred by law upon persons of the female sex.”  ERA supporters didn’t believe that the rider advocated for true equality, so the National Woman’s Party asked that the amendment be withdrawn.

It is by no means a secret that I am a feminist. I believe people of all genders are innately equal and should be treated as such, but I do think that many of the protections that exist (whether they always work the way we want them to or not) are important.  If we haven’t restructured our culture to embody that equality and gotten rid of the problems that those protective laws guard against, how helpful could the Equal Rights Amendment really be?

A lot of parts of our culture still make simple existence and safety difficult for so many different groups of people, and I believe that changing those parts is the only real way to make things better. Changing the way people think about each other and act toward each other. Changing the ways we think about policies and structures, not just in relation to their effects on ourselves and our loved ones, but in relation to our fellow persons who should have those same rights to safety and happiness. Isn’t that what the ‘freedom’ so many associated with this society is supposed to mean?

If it’s a matter of whether or not gender equality should be an explicit part of the constitution, then of course I’m for it, but eliminating much needed protections for women and members of other marginalized genders cannot be an option until we can get to a place where we don’t need them.


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Madelaine Walker : Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age. New Motto: Do no harm, but take no shit.