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The Story of

the Equal Rights Amendment

It was customary that women and children were considered under the protection of male relatives, with few legal rights.

1787 - U.S. Constitution

Written by and for a minority of white men of property, excluding women, enslaved people, Native Americans, and the poor.

1848 - Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention

For the first time, American women assembled publicly to demand their full rights of citizenship.

Susan B. Anthony

Women's rights activist 

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist     

1865 - 1870 - Reconstruction Amendments
 

the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments

Slavery was abolished. ‘Equal protection’ was introduced but did not explicitly include women. Voting rights were granted to formerly enslaved men. Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were friends and they had fought together for the rights of African Americans and women. After the Civil War, states reluctantly granted rights to African American men, but not to women.

After Reconstruction, African American men in southern states were stripped again of their voting rights through white supremacist terror tactics, during the Jim Crow era. 

Fight for Womens’ Suffrage continued

After the exclusion of women from the 14th Amendment, the suffrage movement fought for decades, in every state of the union. Women's suffrage was repeatedly defeated in the individual state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. The protests became more assertive, more visible and in some cases, more dangerous for the women protesting.

1915 -19 - Suffragists picket the White House
1920 – the 19th Amendment was ratified

The 19th Amendment was the first mention of women in the Constitution and granted suffrage but no other rights.

Alice Paul
author of the ERA

1923 – the Equal Rights Amendment 

was written by Alice Paul, a young suffragist and equal rights activist

1923 – 1972 - Fight for legal equality

The ERA was proposed in every session of Congress, gaining support first from Republicans, then joined by the Democrats, as women demanded equal treatment under the law.

1972 – ERA passes Congress

The U.S. Congress passed the ERA by a 2/3 majority and sent it to the states for ratification. A time limit was placed on the Amendment’s ratification by the 1972 Congress.  

1972-1982

Thirty-five states ratified, three states short of the required 38. As U.S. politics shifted to the right, five of those state legislatures attempted to rescind their ratifications.

1982 – 2017
ERA waits

Legislation was proposed in every session of Congress to lift the time limit that had been placed on it. Five state legislatures with flipped majority leadership (NE, TN, ID, KY, SD) attempted to ‘rescind’ their previous ratification – a move with no legal precedent.

2017
Women's March on D.C.

Following the 2016 elections, a surge of activism brought women's demands for equality into clear focus. 

2017
Nevada ratified

In a stunning move, Nevada's state legislature ratified the ERA, giving hope to the movement to finally complete ratification and make the ERA a part of the Constitution..

Medieval times to Colonial years - English Common Law 
2018
Illinois ratified

following close behind Nevada.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (1776)

Our U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1795) became the legal basis for our government and laws. At that time, women had few rights under the law. Women could not vote, could not own land, could not represent themselves in court, could not inherit. Those founding documents did not include women, enslaved people, or Native Americans in the rights and citizenship of the new country.

Maine gained its statehood from Massachusetts in 1820 with a state constitution of its own. As in the U.S. Constitution, women were excluded from mention and by law and practice, excluded from the rights held by men.

During the 1800's women worked tirelessly to gain their basic rights. The battles for those rights took place in every state: to hold property, to control their property (including wages), to have custody of children, and most of all - to VOTE.

The 14th Amendment (1868) and its Equal Protection clause:

 

“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law: nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” 

The Equal Protection clause was intended to protect the rights of African Americans, including formerly enslaved people. It was the first mention of ‘rights’ in the Constitution. It would take 100 more years for the United States to force the southern states to allow the descendants of enslaved people to vote (Civil Rights Act of 1964). 

 

The 14th Amendment has not been a reliable  means of protecting women from discrimination. That was not its intent, in the context of 1868.

It would take another 52 years for women to vote (1920).

The Maine Constitution has been amended many times, but in one respect it has not changed. The pronoun 'he' was changed to 'person' or 'they' in the late 20th century, but the constitution still does not prohibit treating a person unfairly because of her sex. A state ERA would correct that.

Half the states now have state ERA language in their constitutions. More are underway, as in Maine, where a bill to propose a state ERA will be before the legislators again in this 2021 session.

"Equality of rights under the law
shall not be denied or abridged

by the United States or
by any State on account of sex.”


Equal Rights Amendment 1923 - 2021

Alice Paul was one of the young suffragists who went to England to learn suffrage tactics - and returned to the U.S. with new ideas for activism. Picketing the White House, engaging in hunger strikes,  and making pointed attacks on President Wilson were strategies that helped result in the 19th Amendment. 

Alice Paul attended Law School (though until 1922 she couldn't have legally practiced law) and wrote the 24-word amendment that puts women's equal legal rights into the Constitution: 

The Republican Party included the ERA in its party platform starting in 1940 and ending its support in 1980. The Democratic Party has included the ERA in its platform since 1946.   

The states that did not ratify the ERA between 1972 and 1982 were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois*, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada*, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia*

*now ratified

The Equal Rights Amendment (passed in 1972)

"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."

 

After the ERA was passed by the U.S. Congress, it was sent to the states for ratification. By 1982, it had been ratified by only 35 of the necessary 38 state legislatures. As the time limit expired, the ERA became dormant.

While the ERA was being debated, laws were passed as attempts to patch together what is missing in the Constitution:

Although Maine's legislature ratified the federal ERA in 1974, it has not yet amended the state constitution with a state ERA, as more than half of the states have now done.  

Women's activism soared after the 2016 election. Work on the ERA resumed after a 40 year pause. Three state legislatures, with record numbers of female representatives, revived and revived the  ERA.

2017 Women's March, Augusta, ME

2020
Virginia ratified

becoming the 38th and last required state for full ratification.

And now...
March 17, 2021 

The U.S. House passed the bill lifting the 1972 time limit. The Senate is likely to vote on the measure in this 117th Congress.  Support in the general population for equal legal rights for women continues to outstrip any opposition. With more women in elected positions than ever before, the ERA has a fighting chance.

2020 Virginia ratification poster