The Equal Rights Amendment: A 97-Year Struggle

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

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) fell just short of the 38 states required for ratification by the 1982 deadline set by Congress. Recently, however, activists have pushed to revive the campaign to ratify the ERA, arguing that the constitution does not require deadlines for the ratification of amendments. As a result of these efforts, in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to approve the ERA, and in February 2020, the US House of Representatives voted to remove the 1982 deadline for the ERA’s ratification. Women’s rights activists hope that the ERA now has another chance to become a part of the US Constitution, formally guaranteeing women equal rights to men. However, the Senate has not yet voted to approve the extension of the ratification deadline, and several lawsuits both for and against the ERA are already entering the courts.

Whether or not the ERA becomes a part of the Constitution as a result of the current process, it is important for students to learn about the amendment. This Teaching Idea provides an overview of the ERA and an opportunity for students to explore some of the history behind the struggle around its ratification.

  1. What Is the Equal Rights Amendment?

    Place your students in small groups and share the main text of the Equal Rights Amendment with them:

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

    Ask each group to work together to write an explanation of the amendment in their own words. When students have finished, give some groups an opportunity to share their explanations with the class.

    Then, play the CBS video Virginia Approves Equal Rights Amendment for your students to give them context on the history of the ERA and the current effort to ratify it. (Note: Several key developments have occurred around the ERA since this video was published on January 16, 2020. Briefly share the recent events with your students, such as the fact that the House of Representatives has voted to remove the 1982 deadline for the ratification of the ERA, and that several states are debating revoking their ratification.)

    After watching the video, ask your students:

    • What is the significance of the Virginia legislature’s vote to approve the ERA?
    • What obstacles remain in the way of the ERA becoming a part of the Constitution?

    Finally, ask students to reflect on the significance of the ERA in their journals, by using the 3Ys thinking routine. Ask them:

    • Why might the passage of this amendment matter to me?
    • Why might it matter to people around me, for example, my family or friends?
    • Why might it matter to the United States as a whole?
  2. Why Did the Equal Rights Amendment Fail to Pass in 1982?

    Explain to your students the context of the last major effort to pass the ERA, which took place in the 1970s. Share with them that Congress passed the ERA in 1972 with broad bipartisan support. For the ERA to become a part of the Constitution, however, it needed to be ratified by a minimum of 38 (three-quarters) of the states. Within a year, 30 states ratified the ERA, but then conservative activists organized in opposition to the ERA, most notably Phyllis Schlafly. Congress extended the deadline for ratification to 1982, but by that year, only 35 of the 38 required states had ratified the ERA.

    Use the Big Paper discussion strategy to help students explore some of the historical arguments for and against the passage of the ERA. Write the following questions on the board:

    • What were some of the arguments for and against the passage of the ERA in the 1960s and 1970s?
    • What information in the texts do you find surprising, interesting, or troubling?

    Place students into small groups and explain the Big Paper strategy to them. Give half of the groups the first text and the other half the second text. Ask them to discuss their text silently for ten minutes, using the question on the board to guide their conversation. Then, ask the groups to swap their paper with another group that has the other text. Students should then spend five minutes silently discussing the second text. After students finish with the second text, allow them to discuss the two texts out loud in their small groups. Finally, discuss the two texts as a class. Ask your students:

    • What is the state of women’s rights in the United States today?
    • Can you think of any current examples relating to women’s rights that either support or refute any of the arguments made in the two texts?

    Text 1:

    The following is an excerpt from a speech Representative Shirley Chisholm made to the US House of Representatives in 1969.

    As in the field of equal rights for blacks, Spanish-Americans, the Indians, and other groups, laws will not change such deep-seated problems overnight but they can be used to provide protection for those who are most abused, and to begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insensitive majority to reexamine its unconscious attitudes.

    It is for this reason that I wish to introduce today a proposal that has been before every Congress for the last 40 years and that sooner or later must become part of the basic law of the land—the equal rights amendment . . . .

    Existing laws are not adequate to secure equal rights for women. Sufficient proof of this is the concentration of women in lower paying, menial, unrewarding jobs and their incredible scarcity in the upper level jobs. If women are already equal, why is it such an event whenever one happens to be elected to Congress?

    It is obvious that discrimination exists. Women do not have the opportunities that men do. And women that do not conform to the system, who try to break with the accepted patterns, are stigmatized as ''odd'' and "unfeminine." The fact is that a woman who aspires to be chairman of the board, or a Member of the House, does so for exactly the same reasons as any man. Basically, these are that she thinks she can do the job and she wants to try.1

    Text 2:

    The following is an excerpt from a newsletter that the anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote in 1972:

    In the last couple of years, a noisy movement has sprung up agitating for “women’s rights.” Suddenly, everywhere we are afflicted with aggressive females on television talk shows yapping about how mistreated American women are, suggesting that marriage has put us in some kind of “slavery,” that housework is menial and degrading, and—perish the thought—that women are discriminated against . . . .

    Why should we trade in our special privileges and honored status for the alleged advantage of working in an office or assembly line? Most women would rather cuddle a baby than a typewriter or factory machine. Most women find that it is easier to get along with a husband than a foreman or office manager. Offices and factories require many more menial and repetitious chores than washing dishes and ironing shirts. Women’s [rights advocates] do not speak for the majority of American women. American women do not want to be liberated from husbands and children. We do not want to trade our birthright of the special privileges of American women—for the mess of pottage called the Equal Rights Amendment.2

Additional Resources

Citations

  • 1 : Chisholm, Shirley, “Equal Rights for Women,” Congressional Record, US House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (May 21, 1969): Extension of Remarks E4165-6.
  • 2 : Phyllis Schlafly, “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women,” Phyllis Schlafly Report 5, no. 7 (February 1972).

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