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Equal Rights Amendment - A Look Back - 2002-04-03

Twenty years ago, time ran out on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The measure would have amended the U.S. Constitution to ban discrimination on the basis of gender. VOA looks back at why the amendment failed to win ratification - yet did not fail to leave an impact on the nation.

"It was a very simple amendment proposed under the Constitution that said equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by any state on account of sex - one of the shortest, proposed amendments to the Constitution," says Susan Hartmann, a professor of history and women's studies at Ohio State University in Columbus. She points out that before considering the Equal Rights Amendment, Congress had already passed laws guaranteeing women equal rights.

"Congress made it illegal to pay women and men different wages for the same work," she continued. "They made illegal any differential treatment of women and men in employment. They had outlawed sex discrimination in education. They were about to pass other laws banning sex discrimination. But any of those laws could be repealed, amended, changed with one congressional vote. So the Equal Rights Amendment was necessary to make sure that legislation endured and that it was never interpreted in a way that would bring back discrimination."

The ERA was actually proposed in 1923, three years after women in the United States won the right to vote. But the proposal was never considered seriously until the emergence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s. That led to smooth passage of the ERA in the U.S. Senate in 1972 and what appeared to be certain ratification by state legislatures.

Historian Susan Hartmann went on to said, "By the end of 1972, 23 states had ratified it. Public opinion favored it heavily. That movement really stalled by 1974."

Then, a counter-movement emerged made up of conservative women's organizations. They organized rallies in many of the state capitals. By the seven-year deadline for ratification, ERA advocates lacked the approval of the required 38 states. Congress gave advocates three more years.

But, according to Ms. Hartmann, it was clear by then that the conservatives had convinced enough state legislators that ratification would bring dire consequences. She said, "They argued it would relieve men of any responsibilities to support their families and push women into the labor force. They even said it would force unisex public restrooms, that it would eliminate laws against rape, that it would deprive women of alimony and child support, that it would legalize homosexual marriages, and on and on. Most of these charges are silly and were not, in fact, embraced by the amendment."

But conservative women's groups maintain to this day that their fears were not unfounded. Christine Stolba is a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group in Washington, DC. "There was a 'slippery slope' argument made by conservatives," she said, "much of which has proven accurate - 'slippery slope' in the sense in that it [ERA] would be used by feminist groups that women should be eligible for the military draft. Most Americans don't want to see women drafted for military service."

"Phyllis Schlafly, who headed up the stop ERA movement," she continued, "was often ridiculed for suggesting that ERA would be used as a tool to bring about coed bathrooms, for example. Everybody laughed at her and said, 'how silly, how extremist.' Go to a typical liberal arts college these days and what you'll find in many of the dorms are coed bathrooms."

Susan Hartmann believes that opponents succeeded because the ERA was "so short and so simple that it wasn't clear how it would be interpreted." Ms. Hartmann said conservatives also exploited fears among the general public about the widening role of women in society. Ms. Hartman said, "Women's greater independence, greater presence in the public sphere, their increasing tendency to work outside the home - all of these changes were going on before the resurgence of feminism. The Equal Rights Amendment gave people who were anxious about these changes, who found them unsettling, who believed they violated what they thought were appropriate lifestyles - it gave them a way to express that opposition to changing gender roles."

Christine Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum says, however, that although advocates of the ERA lost the battle for ratification in 1982 in the long run, they won the war over equal rights. "Nowadays," she said, "there are still rumblings of wanting to reintroduce the ERA. It is unnecessary now. Women have achieved equality of opportunity. If you look at things such as educational statistics, women are getting more college degrees and more masters degrees than men. They're projected to catch up with them in Ph.D.'s within six years. Women are not being held back."

In general, she said, American women want "the fullest possible choices without having someone dictate what those choices should be."