The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul, who also drafted the Amendment. It was introduced to Congress shortly thereafter by two Republican Senators, one of whom was Susan B. Anthony’s nephew. It failed to pass and thereafter the amendment was offered in every session of Congress until 1970. This is important to note because support for the amendment switched from a Republican cause to a Democratic cause circa 1972.
The first president to publicly support the amendment was Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Kennedy campaigned in support of the amendment, but then failed to support it once in office, sending out the highest ranking woman in his administration, Esther Peterson, who called herself a feminist, to insult conservative women supporters by calling them “The Old Frontier.” Kennedy could not support the amendment because labor opposed it, as did, surprisingly enough, Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing that isn’t well known or often discussed: that famous President’s Commission on the Status of Women that is now so celebrated was a concession to ease the pain of refusing to pass the ERA and using language to denigrate the women who supported it. From the Wiki on the ERA:
In 1961, feminists encouraged the newly elected President John F. Kennedy to support the ERA. Though Kennedy was elected on a pro-ERA platform and took a position favoring the amendment in a letter to Mrs. Emma Guffey Miller, the chairman of the National Woman’s Party, he did not speak out in favor of the amendment due to his ties to labor.Esther Peterson, a feminist and the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and referred to the National Woman’s Party members, most of them aging suffragettes, as the “Old Frontier“. As a concession to pro-ERA feminists, Kennedy appointed a blue-ribbon commission on women, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, to investigate the problem of sex discrimination in the United States. The Commission was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt who dropped her opposition to the ERA in the 1950s to support the United Nations Charter and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which had similar language. In the early 1960s, Roosevelt announced that, due to unionization, she believed the ERA was no longer a threat to women as it once may have been and told supporters that they could have the amendment if they wanted it. The Commission helped win passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which banned sex discrimination in pay in a number of professions (it would later be amended in the early 1970s, at the demand of feminists, to include the professions it initially excluded) and secured an Executive Order from Kennedy eliminating sex discrimination in the civil service. The commission, made largely of anti-ERA feminists with ties to labor, proposed remedies to the widespread sex discrimination it unearthed and in its 1963 final report held that on the issue of equality “a constitutional amendment need not now be sought”. The commission established state and local commissions on the status of women and arranged for follow-up conferences in the years to come.
Also little known in the conversation today is that the GOP had the ERA in their platform from 1940 to 1980. It was Democrats who fought against the amendment from the time it was proposed until 1972, when President Nixon actually signed it after it passed in Congress. We like to talk today about the impact Phyllis Schlafly had opposing the bill, but her efforts could not have gained traction had Democratic men and the women who supported them, including big name feminists, hadn’t spent the preceding 50 years trashing the amendment and its supporters. Every bit of Schlafly’s rhetoric is a mirror of the Democrats’ long history of opposition.
Democrats have supported the Amendment verbally since 1972, but no serious effort has been made since to push the bill through. This is really a neat trick if you think about it. Having spent so long defaming the effort, Democrats turned on a dime to support the bill, yet their rhetoric against it had been so powerful that by the time they got around to supporting it, it had no hope of passing. What’s the harm in supporting something you’ve ensured will never pass? None. None whatsoever.
The salient point here is that Democrats have been using women’s issues to divide women and hold them back for as long as they’ve embraced feminism, begging the question: How do Democrats really support women? The Civil Rights Amendment included women, but has done little to guarantee their civil rights. The Equal Pay Act has not ensured equal pay. Even Title IX, a wildly successful piece of pro-woman legislation, has not had the impact that was intended: to offer women employed by universities some protection from unequal treatment and civil rights abuses. College sports, which has enjoyed the lion’s share of Title IX enforcement, wasn’t even a consideration for the Democratic women who proposed the legislation.
Even as they have made these obvious anti-woman moves, Democrats have constructed a narrative around contraception and abortion that is designed to paint GOP candidates as profoundly anti-women. The caricature that has developed is of a party of men who want to keep women pregnant and in the kitchen, who don’t support women working at anything other than motherhood, and who don’t want women to be able to control their own biology. A look around at life everyday in the place that you are demonstrates the lie of this; millions of conservative women work and control their ability to get pregnant using various methods of birth control. The men who support them are hardly bitching about it.
If women were to take a long hard look at their own history, they might be able to see how much of a disappointment so-called feminist-minded Democrats have been. They have actively sought to reduce the progress that women have made, to reign it in, choosing to support only those causes that deliver up women as the sum of their sexuality and gender: birth control and abortion service. No attempt has been made to ensure professional success or equal pay, let alone equal justice or parity in representation. The GOP isn’t holding women back in these efforts either. They fought for the ERA for 50 years before giving up. Democrats have embraced it for 40 years and have yet to make remotely as much progress on it as Republicans did in their 50 year attempt.
Today the ERA is a joke, a joke that was written by Democrats. Their actions and rhetoric led to the most popular view of the ERA today: that it is a quaint and cute effort put forth by out of touch women who aren’t seeing that progress has already been made. Abortion! And that’s just how many women see it today. And they can thank Democrats for that.
(h/t to elliesmom and WMCB, commenters at The Crawdad Hole, who tipped me off to union lobbying against the ERA)