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The Equal Rights Amendment May Have Found Its Moment

A diverse coalition of lawmakers and activists has brought new life to its founding vision.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the Virginia General Assembly prepared to vote on the Equal Rights Amendment on Wednesday, Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy posed a question to her colleagues: “Which side of history do you want to be on? The world is watching—your mothers, your sisters, your daughters.” By day’s end, the body had decided: It approved the amendment, becoming the thirty-eighth state to do so, nearly 100 years after it was first introduced in Congress. 

The language of the amendment is simple—“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”—but the movement to pass it has been a fraught, century-long story of advances, setbacks, and a complicated reckoning around the meaning of “equality” for women.  

Through that struggle, though, the faces behind the ERA changed. The scope of whom it represented, or attempted to represent, was radically expanded. The campaign for the ERA in the early twentieth century failed to fully include poor women, working women, and women of color. In the 1970s, as the movement reignited and the coalition behind the ERA grew, it was still largely viewed as the territory of white, upper-middle-class women. But in 2020, the diverse coalition supporting the amendment—lawmakers like Carroll Foy, Hala Ayala, Jennifer McClellan, all women of color; and Danica Roem, the first openly trans person to be seated in a state legislature—brought new life and promise to its founding vision.

The first push for the ERA came as an outgrowth of the women’s suffrage movement, and it took with it that movement’s racist and classist exclusions. The woman behind the amendment, National Woman’s Party founder Alice Paul, wanted to direct the momentum of the franchise campaign to securing women’s equality at large in the Constitution. What she proposed in 1923—named after feminist activist and abolitionist Lucretia Mott—stated, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” But this phrasing threatened the many state-level laws guaranteeing women a minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, and safe working conditions. “Only the elite who did not have to work at all or professionals whose conditions of work were unique could possibly denigrate the benefits of labor legislation for women, thought [Women’s Trade Union League] officer Elisabeth Christman,” wrote the historian Nancy Cott. “A former glovemaker herself, she sputtered in fury … her wish to ‘put some of the equal righters in a boiler factory or to work at the conveyor belt in a highly speeded-up mass production industry.’”

Organizations like the American Federation of Labor and the Women’s Trade Union League feared the amendment would force poor women and families into starvation. As Melinda Scott, a United Textile Workers organizer, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1923: “The National Woman’s Party does not know what it is to work 10 or 12 hours a day in a factory; so they do not know what it means to lose an eight-hour day or nine-hour day law. The working women do know.” 

The amendment, and the early movement behind it, was also criticized by black women activists and organizers. Mary Church Terrell, the founding president of the National Association for Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, pressured the NWP to “focus on protecting the vote for women of color at the state level,” but Paul “refused,” according to The Washington Post: “While Terrell recognized that her racial identity could not be separated from her sex, the privileged white organizers … did not.” 

Paul’s refusal mirrored concessions she made to white supremacists in the suffrage movement while planning the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. Afraid that black marchers would threaten her vision and incite negative attention on the part of Southerners, Paul instructed black participants to walk at the end of the parade instead of with their state delegations. “As far as I can see,” Paul wrote while organizing the parade, “we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all.”  

But Terrell also saw the promise of the ERA for black women: The labor laws of the time, Terrell wrote in an undated article at the time, did not protect black women workers who labored “until five or six o’clock in the morning.” She agreed with the ERA’s critics that it was necessary to “clarify” the issues that divided them over the amendment, but urged them to support it. 

Still, the amendment was shelved by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee through the 1940s and ’50s, stifling its momentum. By the early 1970s, though, the movement came alive again. In 1970, Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths filed a discharge petition to bring the bill to a floor vote. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, spoke before the House in favor of it. “The time is clearly now to put this House on record for the fullest expression of that equality of opportunity which our Founding Fathers professed,” said Chisholm. “They professed it, but they did not assure it to their daughters, as they tried to do for their sons. The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white, male citizens.”

By 1972, the ERA was passed in Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Initially, states ratified the amendment in rapid succession: By 1973, 30 of the necessary 38 states had ratified it. But by the ultimate 1982 deadline, the effort was three states short of the threshold. 

While many feminists saw the ERA as the only foolproof way to legally address  gender-based discrimination, there was no unified understanding about the purpose and impact of the ERA across the country—an opportunity that anti-feminists seized on. Conservative lawyer and segregationist Phyllis Schlafly led the anti-feminist charge against the ERA, claiming that it would destroy the American family. (Schlafy’s campaign still resonates today, as Republicans in Virginia invoked many of her arguments while voting against the ERA.) 

Time declared the ERA had been “killed” after Schlafly’s takedown. Organizers even noted that more widespread support for the grassroots movement and greater diversity in government would be necessary to overcome remaining barriers to ratification. National Organization for Women president Eleanor Smeal told The New York Times in 1982 that NOW would “‘not again seriously pursue the ERA until we’ve made a major dent in the memberships of Congress and state legislatures by electing more women and ‘men who are genuinely feminists.’” She told the paper that NOW would seek to grow its membership from 200,000 members to one million to ratify the amendment in the future. 

Today, though, the ambitions of that era have at least partially come to pass. Lawmakers and organizers from black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities, among others, have reawakened the public to the promise of the amendment. 

Nevada’s newly Democratic legislature passed the ERA in 2017 after no state had ratified it for 40 years. Behind the push was Nevada state Senator Pat Spearman, a black former pastor, veteran, and the first openly gay member of the Nevada legislature. In North Carolina, Representative Carla Cunningham, a black woman and former nurse, is the state’s chief sponsor of the ERA ratification bill. Carol Jenkins, a black woman, is co-president and CEO of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality, an ERA-ratification advocacy group. 

Even as Virginia has ratified the amendment, ERA supporters continue to face an uphill battle. The ratification deadline is long expired, though some advocates argue that only Congress has the power to decide whether to revive a constitutional amendment. Last week, the Trump Justice Department weighed in on the issue, writing that “Congress may not revive a proposed amendment after the deadline has expired.” The matter, ultimately, may be decided in court.

For generations, the women behind the ERA fought for an idea of equality—flawed, insufficient, and constantly evolving—never knowing if they’d see it materialize in their lifetimes. The fate of the amendment, then as now, remains an open question. In her remarks before the vote this week, citing the late poet Maya Angelou, Carroll Foy told the Virginia legislature: “I come as one but stand as 10,000. In this case I stand with 160 million women and girls throughout this country waiting for their constitutional equality.” That idea of equality is still alive, but the wait continues.