ERA: The Past

This picture was taken at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, home to Alice Paul and the early suffragettes, during the 40th anniversary of the March 22, 1972 passage of the ERA through Congress. I was so inspired by this program that I decided to create a series of posts dedicated to the ERA’s past, present, and future. In this post I give some back ground information on the amendment, in the next post I will outline my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading “Housewife to Heretic,” to becoming a National Council for Women’s Organizations Mormons for ERA Activist! The final post will be dedicated to the future of the ERA and what you can do. Check out the official ERA website for more information:

I come from a family of strong women. We are opinionated, talented, capable, and hearty. We have faced heartache and trials and through it all we thank the Lord for our blessings. So it was with much surprise when I first learned about the church’s opposition to the ERA or The Equal Rights Amendment. “How can equal rights ever be a bad thing?” I genuinely asked my mother. “I don’t know” she said “the church said it was a moral issue,” she was now racking her brain to remember the reason, “that it would ruin the family if it passed or something like that” she mumbled trailing off, already preoccupied with another task. That was not enough for me. It just did not make any common sense.

The Suffragettes fought and gained the right to vote in 1920 alongside cadres of Mormon women who formed, with official church approval, women’s suffrage associations throughout the West “many, if not all of them, sprang from the women’s auxiliary organizations of the church, most notably the Relief Society. The Woman’s Exponent, an unofficial publication for Mormon women, took up the cause with zeal” (Jean Bickmore White). Championed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (albeit with the express purpose that once women had the right to vote they would inevitably reject polygamy), Utah became only the second territory to grant women the right to vote! Three years later in 1923, Alice Paul an indefatigable women’s rights activist realized that the right to vote alone would not end the withstanding discrimination against women under the law and drafted the first Equal Rights Amendment which 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.”

It seems simple enough, banal even. “Men and women shall have equal rights.” Yet, how did the amendment constructed to enforce this law only three years after the LDS church officially approved the use of auxiliary services to fight for the cause of women’s rights become something “immoral?” How could something so seemingly obvious incite such vehement opposition from the very same religion and daughters of the women that brought about women’s suffrage?The answer is a complicated entanglement of time, politics, and fear. From 1923-1970 the ERA was introduced in every session of Congress but only rarely made its way out of committee and when it did it was mired in politics. During this time and without any constitutional protection for women against discrimination under the law (as Justice Scalia argues is still the case), many small battles were fought and won, such as, Equal Pay Acts, protective labor legislation, and equal employment opportunities for women. These small victories presented a problem; they created seemingly unnatural battle lines in these issues with Republicans fully supporting the ERA from 1940-1980 and many Democrats, feminists, and labor groups fearing that they would lose their protective labor rights with the passage of the ERA. This battle waged on until the women’s rights movement of the late 1960’s-1970’s when the creation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Women’s Strike for Equality dredged up the flailing ERA rewritten by Paul in 1943 to state: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” On March 22, 1972 the ERA was approved by Congress in a rushed bid that actually made Alice Paul cry, but not out of joy. She feared that the bargain made to get the ERA through Congress, accepting a seven year deadline for the ratification of 38 states, would be its biggest downfall. She was right.

While the ERA was ratified rapidly at first, thirty ratifications by 1973, its numbers slowed drastically throughout the next decade with many rescinding their ratifications and tragically dishonest and amoral politicking along the way. Eleanor Smeal still has pain in her voice as she talks about the long fought ratification that was “lost” on its way to the archives or the one that was valiantly celebrated on Nevada’s congress floor with a brilliant last minute maneuver to outwit the filibustering opposition only to be overturned that very night in a private meeting of male-only congressmen, some imprisoned for taking bribes later on, but the state remaining unratified by the deadline regardless. There was incredible pressure and lobbying from health insurance companies spending enormous amounts of money to reject or rescind the ratification of the ERA because they would be greatly impacted by laws prohibiting sex discrimination because they charged (and still do) women significantly more than men for health insurance. There was also a heavy backlash of social conservatives against the ERA, who feared women’s rights and the women’s movement as a threat to traditional power structures. The church was a notable opponent to the ERA (a position that will be further explained in the next post on this series) and promulgated literature, read messages from the pulpit, and called and set apart sisters to vote against the ERA in unratified states because it was a serious moral issue which could potentially: force women into the draft, mandate unisex bathrooms, extend legal protection to same-sex couples, blur eternal gender roles, and harm the traditional family (The Church’s Official ERA Stance). Despite fighting for and gaining a three-year extension, the ERA remained three states short of being ratified.

With all of the current debates about gender discrimination and the affordable health care act I cannot help but wonder where we would be had the ERA been ratified 40 years ago. Instead of spending all our time and money fighting each of these little battles, we could have had freedom from discrimination in the constitution. Women and men would have equal rights under the law. That is something our fore-mother’s fought for, something that we MUST make happen, and something our granddaughters will be surprised was not always an inalienable right. “Why would equal rights ever be a bad thing?” I want my future progeny to ask me. “I don’t know,” I will say, “I just don’t know, but I never stopped fighting.”

At the bottom of the 40th anniversary program there was this beautiful quote:

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’” –Mary Anne Radmacher.

Do you agree with this quote? How can we be courageous in the face of national and religious opposition? Why has it almost been 100 years since the original ERA was drafted and it is still not law? Are women’s rights different than any other human rights? What is different about the right to vote and the right to be protected against discrimination under the law? What do you remember about the ERA past? What would you like to know about the ERA present? Or the ERA Future?


  1. I remember the ERA battle very well. My sister-in-law was a delgate to the women’s convention in Washington State. I knew many of the Church arguments against the ERA were specious. I recall general RS President,Barbara B. Smith, cautioning that women would lose special rights and privileges such as alimony if ERA passed.

    But, I was conflicted. Surely my Church wouldn’t ask members to support a wrong position. Remembering my feelings then helps me have more compassion for members who feel conflicted with the current Church position on gay marriage.

  2. I remember the ERA battles very well. I was a law student at the time. I don’t think you are framing the issue in a way that does justice to those who opposed it. The issue was not just about the principle of equal rights for women. It was about a particular constitutional amendment and the legal implications of that amendment. That is quite a different matter.

    The fundamental question was defining precisely what this amendment would mean. It is easy to talk about equality in the abstract, but the potential implications were questioned by many. Once you amend the constitution, legislatures lose their power and judges decide what it means. Those decisions are not easily reversed.

    For example, opponents were concerned that this particular amendment would mean that discrimination on the basis of sex would be prohibited in precisely the same manner that discrimination on the basis of race would be prohibited. Their concern was that this could easily lead to unintended and consequences. For example, the Supreme had held that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. If a white man can marry a white woman, then a black man can marry a white woman–there can be no distinction between the races. Opponents of the ERA argued (probably correctly although we will never know) that passage of the ERA would also make gay marriage legal by the same logic. If a woman can marry a man then a man can marry a man. There can be no distinction on the basis of sex just as there can be distinction on the basis of race. Other similar arguments were made with respect to issues such as the draft (or combat) and every other area where most people at the time thought that some distinction between the sexes was justifiable.

    Now, of course some might argue that gay marriage is fine, and women should be drafted along with men, and all other distinctions between the sexes should be obliterated. I am even sympathetic to some of these arguments myself. However, relatively few Americans supported gay marriage at the time. In any event, whatever you think of gay marriage, most people don’t think of it as an issue of equality between the sexes so much as an issue as an issue of equality for gays. Whether you disagree or agree, it was not unreasonable for opponents to point out that the potential implications of an amendment to the constitution are vast and often surprising once these decisions are placed in the hands of judges instead of legislatures.

    It is too simplistic and quite unfair to criticize the opponents of the ERA as being opposed to women’s rights. Many strongly supported women’s rights but considered this particular amendment to place too much power in the hands of judges to make fundamental changes that very few people at the time supported or even considered to be legitimate issues of sexual equality.

  3. Gary, you bring up a lot of good points. I am aware of many of your arguments. I am planning on addressing the church’s stance and Mormons for ERA back in 1972-1982 more in the next post in the series. What is clear is that for many people of my generation the arguments outlined in the church’s official opposition to the ERA (linked above) just do not hold water today. Many of the ruinous potentialities for the family that were debated if the ERA was ratified (mother’s getting social security, not being discriminated against in healthcare, more affordable childcare, motherhood being considered a job that can be financially calculated-as seen in later divorce precedents-, etc.) are actually enormously beneficial to women, mother’s, and families at large. What I wanted to make clear from this post is that aside from the early 1900’s approval of Suffrage and despite hundreds of years of claims of the divinity and importance of motherhood and womanhood, the church has done nothing politically to support or increase women’s/mother’s rights. In fact, in arguably the most crucial legislation of the last 50 years for women and mothers, the church was one of its biggest oppositions (including encouraging women to vote against ALL women’s legislation during this time, even those things that had nothing to do with ERA and would have benefited women and families enormously). What is also clear is that aside from many fears and concerns about drafts, bathrooms, spousal roles and responsibilities (none of which are moral issues), the church’s main statement was that the ERA was a moral issue and the immorality of it is entirely unclear to me. I’ve read through the issue with a fine tooth comb, from every perspective I can find, and I can still not find a way to make it “immoral.” Untraditional, Fearful, Uncertain, Sure. But Immoral? Please help explain that?

    Obviously, I am fully aware that the passage of the ERA would have had consequences for same-sex marriage and that was an issue quite different in that era than in ours. However, if the denial of women’s and mother’s rights (even some of them) was because of the church’s concern for the future of the definition of marriage, this needs to be stated clearly. Women should be told that they are being called and set apart to vote against many of their own interests for this reason and not because of a euphemistic and double-speak mantra of “Equality Yes, ERA no” or “ERA is a moral issue” with no explanation of why. Basically, what I am saying is that if the “moral” aspect of the ERA came down to gay marriage than this is quite another issue entirely and not addressing it as such is dishonest.

    I also am aware that there were many different perspectives which would validate opposition to the ERA. Opponents of ERA were not just social conservatives; Democrats and feminists were concerned for protective labor rights, later feminists were upset by the potentially negative consequences of radical equality for women who are different than men and have different needs, etc. On top of this, I am sympathetic to many women in the church who were responding to a call for obedience, loyalty, and following their prophet more than they were concerned with the legal debate of the ERA; something that we’ve been taught to do our entire lives. My mother and the women in my family of strong and opinionated women were doing what they were told to do by church leaders that they loved and trusted. I am torn. I see this same issue raised by the recent Prop 8 debates. The people on each side are making decisions based on different motivating factors which are are both valuable and legitimate. I don’t have any answers on this. Just questions….

    The point that I most wanted to make with this post on the ERA past was how crucial and potent early Mormon women were for the right to vote and the Suffrage movement and how different the role of women, relief society, and the church was only five decades later.

  4. What gets me is that many countries (like Canada) have statements in their constitutions similar to the ERA and we don’t. Our country can be so backwards sometimes. At this point, I don’t think ratifying the ERA will do much more than be symbolic, but it is SUCH NEEDED symbolism. Our constitution doesn’t guarantee the equality of the sexes? We had to do that by passing numerous Auxilliary laws? Ridiculous!

  5. I too remember the ERA battle well. I lived in Oregon at the time, a state which ratified the ERA fairly early in the debate. When the Church got into the fight against it, I was very glad that I didn’t live in a state that was still trying to decide what to do. I remember feeling very confused. I did not agree with the Church’s stance, but I did not feel comfortable speaking out about it. So I just stayed out of the conversation, avoiding any discussion of it. My husband and I attended the Seattle temple open house and dedication and saw Sonia Johnson chain herself to the temple gates (she was arrested for this act). I thought she had a lot of guts, but then hers became a cautionary tale of what happens when you oppose the Church, when she was excommunicated. I remember feeling so afraid to say anything. My husband was a bishop at the time, and I was afraid to even talk to him about it.
    I understand the cultural roadblocks to the ERA in the 60s and 70s and before then too, but what about now? I believe that if there were another big push for the ERA, the LDS Church would oppose it still, because I don’t believe that LDS doctrine supports equality of the sexes, at least not the way I define equality. Maybe that is the rub, actually–the definition of equality.
    Thank you for this post. I look forward to the future posts. I would like to know if there is really anything that can be done to push for ratification of the ERA? Or are we just spitting into the wind?

  6. Whoa-man: I won’t pretend to defend all arguments made against the ERA. Many were clearly without merit. However, I do think that there were legitimate reasons why somebody might believe in equal rights and still oppose this particular amendment to the consitution, and I think it is unfair to assume that anybody who opposed the ERA is, by definition, an opponent of equal rights for women. There are many, many questions that are embedded in that issue and they need to considered carefully. Don’t forget that the 14th amendment already provides for equal protection of the law for all persons. Once you head down this path, you are engaged in a discussion about the nuances of constitutional law, and what preciselty equality means in different contexts. Reasonable people can disagree, but it is not fair to accuse those who disagree with the ERA that they are opposed to equal rights for women. That is far too simplistic–akin to suggesting that liberals who want increased taxes on the rich are promoting class warfare, or that conservatives who oppose minimum wage legislation are indifferent to the poor.

    We have to get past sweeping allegations and deal with specific issues. When we do that, we often find that our disagreements shrink significantly. At the very least, we shed light on the real areas of disagreement and the reasons for the disagreement.

    • I want to know how the ERA opens the floodgates while at the same time is totally redundant/irrelevant with the 14th ammendment. I’ve always been intrigued by those who argue that the 14th ammendment already provides equal protections and then go on to talk about all the bad things that the ERA would introduce. Gary, you mention that gay marriage would have been allowed under the ERA. But then why not gay marriage with the 14th ammendment? If these are the same protections, than why is the ERA so much scarier for things like gay marriage and the draft? How can a redundant ammendment be so scary it has be be fought against tooth and nail?

      I guess I don’t see the argument of all of the unintended consequences meshing with the argument that there is already an ammendment in place that provides for everything the ERA does making it irrelevant, but I hear the same people saying both of these arguments simultaneously, you have done on the comment above and your comment previously.

      If the ERA does something different than the 14th ammendment, it’s work taking a look at it and providing those rights regardless of sex. If it is redundant, how can it be so frightenting?

      • Alisa: I have not argued and I do not believe that the ERA would be redundant. In fact, I don’t think I have ever met anybody who believed that. Nor have I argued that it would open any floodgates. In fact, I have deliberately not expressed my own opinion on the issue. My point is much more limited. The issue cannot be distilled to a simple discussion about whether or not women are entitled to equal rights, and it is not fair to characterize opponents of the ERA as opponents of equality for women. Until you deal with their real concerns, you are simply talking past them.

        You are right that a law which is simply redundant cannot at the same time be criticized for opening the floodgates to a torrent of evil. You are preaching to the converted on that point. However, I think it is fair to ask of supporters of the ERA the following question: “What specific results do you hope to achieve with the ERA that are not already achieved by the fourteenth amendment which guarantees equal rights to all person?”

        Once the question is framed that way, it is possible to begin a rational discussion. That discussion will require a good understanding of existing constitutional law and the principles that have been elucidated by the Supreme Court when considering equal protection cases. In what sense are women currently not entitled to equality under the law and how will the ERA remedy that situation? Only after one has a really good understanding of the existing jurisprudence can one engage in genuinely productive discussions about the what changes the ERA would effect and whether or not those changes are desirable. Personally, I don’t know enough about the law right now to engage in this debate intelligently. I did 30 years ago, but many things may have changed since then.

        I agree that many arguments made against the ERA were ridiculous. However, I certainly knew some very thoughtful people who believed that, as a matter of constitutional law, it raised some important concerns and they therefore believed that there were better ways of addressing the inequities that existed.

  7. Gary, I agree. That is why I tried to outline some of the reasons (from protective labor laws to gay marriage) that some people would oppose the ERA. I am still unconvinced, however, by any of the church material that there was a really good case for opposing the ERA. There is a lot of euphemism and double-speak, such as, there is no need for the ERA since we have equality protected with the 14th amendment in one section and in another section the claim that if ERA passes the entire structure of the family will be threatened. Likewise, the motto: Equality Yes, ERA No, is rarely explained in detail. I would love to see how the church supports and even encourages the political equality of women (as they say is needed in the beginning paragraphs of their official statement). I would love to have a rational clear and easy to understand explanation for the reasons why the ERA is immoral. I am very open to listening to your more nuanced argument. Please share. Let’s have the type of conversation you desire right here in the comments section.

    • Whoa-man: Whether or not the church does anything or enough to support the political equality of women is not an issue I know anything about and is one that I won’t pretend to defend. I don’t know, but I don’t see how it is relevant to the ERA. Nor am I able to defend the proposition that the ERA is immoral. I don’t think it is and I don’t recall that as being a common argument. Maybe it was–it has been a long time since I thought about this issue.

      I did mention to you one specific concern that many people had–that it would legalize gay marriage. I believe that was a legitimate point. I think it would have had that effect and I also think that very few people in American society at that time thought that was a good idea. I am personally in favor of gay marriage (although I was not at that time) but that is not the point here. The point here is that a simple constitutional amendment could have very significant legal consequences that were not intended were not easily foreseen. Gay marriage was probably the best example of that, but there were others. For example, many believed that the military could and should be entitled to make some distinctions on the basis of sex. Many thoughtful people believed that it would be more prudent to identify the specific issues where women were being denied equal protection and then to deal with those issues either as equal protection cases under the 14th amendment, or with new legislation if necessary. That position can be debated, but those people should not be accused of hostility to equality rights for women.

  8. […] that I decided to create a series of posts dedicated to the ERA’s past, present, and future. In the first post I gave some background information on the equal rights amendment, in this post I will outline my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading […]

  9. […] that I decided to create a series of posts dedicated to the ERA’s past, present, and future. In the first post I gave some background information on the equal rights amendment, in next post I outlined my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading From […]

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