Debate Magazine

Your Feminist History Lesson For The Day: The ERA

Posted on the 05 May 2011 by Juliez

When people are being really annoying about the whole “do we still need feminism” thing, I find it less effective to start listing the thousands of reasons why we do, and more effective to slam whatever ignoramus I’m talking to with one solid reason…backed up by those other reasons, of course. That’s right: I break out the ERA.

Now, young feminist grasshoppers, as your resident feminist sensi, I feel that I must pass down the defense of the ERA to all of you, especially since it’s something that even the greatest of young feminists don’t really know about or understand (blame the dumbass history textbooks/courses/teachers who feel it’s more important to get on to Reagan than it is to talk about women’s history).

Here’s the deal: the ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment) was written by Alice Paul and first introduced to Congress in 1923, and was introduced every year subsequently until it was FINALLY passed by Congress in 1972 (yes, it took almost 50 years to get even THAT far). Both the Senate and the House approved the proposed amendment, and it was sent to the states for ratification, with a seven year time limit placed on the ratification process. Within the first year, thirty of the necessary thirty-eight states ratified the amendment, but the ERA ultimately failed to be ratified. Yes- there it is – the defense: If the freakin United States of America is so freakin equal then why don’t we have a freakin amendment about Equal Rights?? IF WE’RE SO PRO-EQUALITY WHY DIDN’T WE RATIFY IT?

Bam. Asshole shuts up, due to a combination of being presented with solid logic and also, if somebody is ignorant enough to not realize that we need feminism they’re often ignorant about politics, too, and thus don’t question you when you break out political history. But that’s secondary, of course.

But more importantly than using the ERA’s failure as a solid pro-feminism argument, it’s probably worth looking into why it wasn’t passed, despite the valiant efforts of awesome feminists. You can learn more about that here and it’s also probably worth looking into Phyllis Schlafly. Here’s a lovely recent interview with her. Doesn’t she seem like a sweetheart?

Let’s not waste any time on Schlafly, though, when we can hear some reasoning as to why the ERA didn’t pass from one of its greatest proponents – Gloria Steinem. Yes, I interviewed the lovely Ms. Steinem a few years ago, and didn’t include some thoughts she had on the ERA, which are transcripted below, just for you FBombers. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on the ERA from a woman who was there on the ground fighting for it, an integral part of American history.


In public opinion polls, the wording of the ERA was always supported by a definitive majority of Americans. Indeed, it got majority support even when only the initials were given, despite distortions of its impact by the opposition: for instance, that the ERA would force women out of the home, require the integration of public bathrooms, legalize gay marriage and force women into combat — none of which it would do.

Therefore, I believe the main reason the ERA failed to be ratified by the last three states was the unrepresentative nature of most state legislatures – most Americans don’t know who their state legislators are, even when they know their U.S. Senators and Congressmembers and most state legislators are also part-time and poorly paid, which means they’re are often there for such other motives as preventing regulation of insurance, liquor, land use etc. Also the insurance industry is the last big industry not to be federally regulated, and the ERA would have prevented the discriminatory use of sex in actuarial tables (they can no longer use race) thus costing the industry some of its profits. (This last reason was less important in states like New York and California that already regulated insurance, but very important in southern and western states.) If the federal government had decided to regulate insurance, the motivation would have gone out of the industry opposition to the ERA state by state, but you can see how powerful that industry is from past healthcare debates.

Here’s an example from the past: In Nevada, pro-ERA forces elected 11 state legislators on the basis of their written pledges to support the ERA, but once in office, every one of them voted against it. Why? Because the leadership in the legislature threatened that if they did, they would never be given a committee chair, or would not have an ethics charge dropped — all kinds of threats. That Nevada legislature is heavily controlled by Mormons who also officially opposed the ERA for religious reasons, or because the Mormons own insurance companies, or both. (Indeed, Sonia Johnson, a prominent Mormon woman, was excommunicated because she publicly campaigned for the ERA. Mormons also refused to support Reagan for the Presidency until he dropped his support for the ERA.)

I don’t think there was anything about the wording of the ERA that should have been changed. However, we might have won if we had mounted a national pro-ERA campaign earlier, before the opposition had a chance to form, or if we had rejected a ratification deadline (which most amendments haven’t had). But because the ERA was leftover from the suffrage era and it seemed so reasonable to raise sex to the level of suspect category — like race, religion and national origin — the women’s movement in general probably underestimated the depth of opposition. Alice Paul was still alive when the ERA passed out of Congress, but when she heard there was a ratification deadline, she said it would never happen. She knew the nature of state legislatures from the long and only-by-a-hair battle to ratify suffrage.

- Gloria Steinem

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