Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 05/5/2011

Your Feminist History Lesson For The Day: The ERA

When people are being really annoying about the whole “do we still need feminism” thing, I find it less effective to start listing the thousands of reasons why we do, and more effective to slam whatever ignoramus I’m talking to with one solid reason…backed up by those other reasons, of course. That’s right: I break out the ERA.

Now, young feminist grasshoppers, as your resident feminist sensi, I feel that I must pass down the defense of the ERA to all of you, especially since it’s something that even the greatest of young feminists don’t really know about or understand (blame the dumbass history textbooks/courses/teachers who feel it’s more important to get on to Reagan than it is to talk about women’s history).

Here’s the deal: the ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment) was written by Alice Paul and first introduced to Congress in 1923, and was introduced every year subsequently until it was FINALLY passed by Congress in 1972 (yes, it took almost 50 years to get even THAT far). Both the Senate and the House approved the proposed amendment, and it was sent to the states for ratification, with a seven year time limit placed on the ratification process. Within the first year, thirty of the necessary thirty-eight states ratified the amendment, but the ERA ultimately failed to be ratified. Yes- there it is – the defense: If the freakin United States of America is so freakin equal then why don’t we have a freakin amendment about Equal Rights?? IF WE’RE SO PRO-EQUALITY WHY DIDN’T WE RATIFY IT?

Bam. Asshole shuts up, due to a combination of being presented with solid logic and also, if somebody is ignorant enough to not realize that we need feminism they’re often ignorant about politics, too, and thus don’t question you when you break out political history. But that’s secondary, of course.

But more importantly than using the ERA’s failure as a solid pro-feminism argument, it’s probably worth looking into why it wasn’t passed, despite the valiant efforts of awesome feminists. You can learn more about that here and it’s also probably worth looking into Phyllis Schlafly. Here’s a lovely recent interview with her. Doesn’t she seem like a sweetheart?

Let’s not waste any time on Schlafly, though, when we can hear some reasoning as to why the ERA didn’t pass from one of its greatest proponents – Gloria Steinem. Yes, I interviewed the lovely Ms. Steinem a few years ago, and didn’t include some thoughts she had on the ERA, which are transcripted below, just for you FBombers. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on the ERA from a woman who was there on the ground fighting for it, an integral part of American history.


In public opinion polls, the wording of the ERA was always supported by a definitive majority of Americans. Indeed, it got majority support even when only the initials were given, despite distortions of its impact by the opposition: for instance, that the ERA would force women out of the home, require the integration of public bathrooms, legalize gay marriage and force women into combat — none of which it would do.

Therefore, I believe the main reason the ERA failed to be ratified by the last three states was the unrepresentative nature of most state legislatures – most Americans don’t know who their state legislators are, even when they know their U.S. Senators and Congressmembers and most state legislators are also part-time and poorly paid, which means they’re are often there for such other motives as preventing regulation of insurance, liquor, land use etc. Also the insurance industry is the last big industry not to be federally regulated, and the ERA would have prevented the discriminatory use of sex in actuarial tables (they can no longer use race) thus costing the industry some of its profits. (This last reason was less important in states like New York and California that already regulated insurance, but very important in southern and western states.) If the federal government had decided to regulate insurance, the motivation would have gone out of the industry opposition to the ERA state by state, but you can see how powerful that industry is from past healthcare debates.

Here’s an example from the past: In Nevada, pro-ERA forces elected 11 state legislators on the basis of their written pledges to support the ERA, but once in office, every one of them voted against it. Why? Because the leadership in the legislature threatened that if they did, they would never be given a committee chair, or would not have an ethics charge dropped — all kinds of threats. That Nevada legislature is heavily controlled by Mormons who also officially opposed the ERA for religious reasons, or because the Mormons own insurance companies, or both. (Indeed, Sonia Johnson, a prominent Mormon woman, was excommunicated because she publicly campaigned for the ERA. Mormons also refused to support Reagan for the Presidency until he dropped his support for the ERA.)

I don’t think there was anything about the wording of the ERA that should have been changed. However, we might have won if we had mounted a national pro-ERA campaign earlier, before the opposition had a chance to form, or if we had rejected a ratification deadline (which most amendments haven’t had). But because the ERA was leftover from the suffrage era and it seemed so reasonable to raise sex to the level of suspect category — like race, religion and national origin — the women’s movement in general probably underestimated the depth of opposition. Alice Paul was still alive when the ERA passed out of Congress, but when she heard there was a ratification deadline, she said it would never happen. She knew the nature of state legislatures from the long and only-by-a-hair battle to ratify suffrage.

- Gloria Steinem

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  • Liz @ at 12:02 pm, May 5th, 2011

    Great post! At the Vagina Monologues this year my chapter of the FMLA had a “pay-equity bake sale,” where we advertised prices for men and women as proportionate to average male/female earnings (but no one actually had to pay more or less, since we believe in equality.)

  • Sara @ at 3:52 pm, May 6th, 2011

    The problem is that men will get equal choice in conception rights,i.e. they will be able to abort responsibility and consequences for conception as we can and they will gain equal paternity rights to children. Women will have to register for Selective Service.

    We want equality where it is of benefit not “equality”

  • NWOslave @ at 8:33 pm, May 7th, 2011

    The ERA was/is oppossed by every single feminist organizastion. AA, Title IX, Quotas, the myriad of Federal, State and Local organizations that spend trillions on womens only programs would be eliminated. Alimony would disappear. Child custody after divorce would always be joint custody.

    The enactment of the ERA would mean the Government would lose the power to tax and police all those programs. plus women would be basically on their own with out the crutch of the Government to lend a helping hand. Neither women or the Government are willing to give up that power.

  • Juliana @ at 10:22 am, May 14th, 2011

    I haven’t studied the ERA enough to make a solid argument against the above post, but I do have to say: Why would the ERA erase alimony and make child custody joint custody by default? Isn’t child custody generally decided by who is seen as the better parent (though I realize that courts are often biased towards the mother)? And doesn’t a man deserve alimony the same as a woman if she earns more money than him?

  • Catherine @ at 4:21 pm, June 20th, 2011

    I’ve just finished reading the May 11 2010 post “Your Feminist History Lesson For The Day: The ERA and I am left with a lot of questions.

    In another article, a contributor to this blog says “I am incredibly frustrated with the fact that I don’t have the power to be taken seriously.”

    And yet:
    Why do contributors to this blog, who would not think of being silly about issues like racism and homophobia which are seen to hurt men, think that they are not allowed to be serious about serious matters if the subject is women? The self-demeaning language, beginning with a blog title that ties feminism to a word referring to mean sex, and continuing with variations on the same word applied as redundant adjectives, the labored cuteness alternating with affected feistiness that signals weakness and insecurity, and the superficial acquaintance with women’s history that tries to disguise itself in a breezy, know-it-all style – all reveal a fear of confronting sexism as the brute fact that it is – a world-wide social system by which men advantage themselves at women’s expense. Feminism is witnessing to the existence of this system that pays off for all men, working to understand its methods, and acting to end it. As Andrea Dworkin said, “I’m a feminist – not the fun kind.”

    The Equal Rights Amendment did not “fail,” as the writer asserts. Let’s get to the point: men defeated the ERA. To the extent that women opposed it, one would do well to remember Dworkin’s comment “A woman has to make the best deal she can.” Gloria Steinem, who follows that maxim, is quoted as saying that women’s inequality hurts men. As a man I know remarked on hearing someone say that slavery hurt slaveowners too, “Apparently not enough.”

    So why does the writer on the ERA think it unnecessary to get to the constitutional roots of the need for an equal rights amendment? She casually refers to it as a holdover from the old campaign for suffrage, but doesn’t stop to ask why it was legally possible for men to prevent women citizens who were required to pay taxes and obey local, state, and federal laws from voting. Quoting Gloria Steinem on the political fun and games associated with the ERA campaign, or referring snarkily to that easy but unimportant target, Phyllis Schlafly, is trivial stuff not worth mentioning except as an example of men’s “chicks up front” tactic – although it might be worth noting that opponents’ threats about what ERA “would do” painted a far stronger picture of women’s equality under the law than proponents were timidly offering. Typical of the false expertise that passes for ERA know-how is the section of the article dealing with insurance regulation as a barrier to passage of the ERA. There is no excuse for letting shoddy assumptions that fit stereotypes go on without critical examination, especially when solid scholarship has made an accurate explanation available. See http://www.centspermilenow.org article #342-“Sex-divided mileage, accident, and insurance cost data show that auto insurers overcharge most women” J. of Insurance Regulation 6: 243-284, 373-420.

    To start where one should with the ERA basics, go to http://www.equality4women.org – #760 ERA — Toward a Successful Campaign Other short papers cited in the top section of the index can also be helpful. All begin with the real meat of the 1776 epistolary exchange between Abigail and John Adams, not the pert “Remember the Ladies” bowdlerization.

    With best regards

  • david chipps @ at 6:47 am, September 19th, 2011

    Okay, I’m big on feminism. I’m a gay male that was raised by a single mother.

    But, nothing you have shown us has anything to do with the current political mess our country is in.

    Most of the Liberal Left have used racial politics to degenerate the surrounding neighborhoods and create grey areas in the Liberal movement. A mixture of Mayor Guliani push the inner street poor to the suburbs mixed with feminism’s misuse of racial politics have destroyed the suburbs.

    In Salem, Oregon a poor uneducated woman can now give a man a hand job at PUSSYCATS STRIP CLUB. Sure it will cost you 200 dollars, but I don’t feel that Gloria Steinem is necessarily moving us forward as we enter an age of classicsm like I’ve never seen.

    I think hitting the feminist drum as the economy is on the edge of collapsing is naive. I was raised by a single mother and I’ve seen plenty of single mothers fall by the way side in my twenty years.

    The reason feminism prevails in the WEST is most importantly because of our economy. Without that we are looking back at an Industrial society.

    I think you should have more concerns over our current economic condition than you have for Gloria Steinem.

    I also think that you should start thinking for yourself.

  • Twiss Butler @ at 10:57 pm, December 31st, 2012

    To add to my post above on 6/20/2011 as Catherine, I recommend a very critical reading of this official-looking website:http://www.equalrightsamendment.org. The presentation of the meaning of the ERA and the section on Strategy are perfect examples of the shifty, weak, politicized approach that helped men defeat the ERA and set the next generation of young women up to try to make sense of a campaign that stays stuck on stupid. For a fresh, strong analysis see “How to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) worth passing” (#760, 6 pages) Nondiscrimination laws must have a strong constitutional foundation to work and that is what the real ERA is all about. Go for it (and ignore the dudes – they aren’t on your side). Twiss

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