Women Don't Have Equal Rights: A Brief History of the ERA and Anti-Feminist Movement in the United States

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equalBy Taylor Ciambra

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]ith the presidential debates in full swing and an election nearly upon us, this autumn is filled with anticipation, uncertainty and hope. But there’s a bit of unfinished business haunting feminists these days, The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Originally proposed in 1923 to ensure that equal treatment of the sexes was constitutional, the ERA has still not passed.

That’s right.

Women do not have equal rights in the United States in 2016.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.  According to the Equal Rights Coalition, 96% of Americans are under the erroneous assumption that the ERA was passed and that legally, men and women are considered equal in this country. In this article, I’m going to talk about the history of the ERA, how the anti-feminist movement both in the past and in the present are tied into it, why it’s important to get our rights in ink and finally, what we can do to try to push this amendment along.

Because it’s about time, isn’t it?[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

THE LONG ERA OF THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he Equal Rights Amendment began it’s life shortly after the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Leading suffragette, Alice Paul, introduced the amendment in 1923, hoping to ride off of the success of the right to vote just three years before and bring equality one step further. The wording of the amendment was revised in 1972 to the following and has not been altered since:

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.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

After nearly fifty years, the ERA was finally passed by the House and the Senate. Then is was sent to states for ratification. Here, the amendment was slowed down again. Even after it’s seven year deadline was extended by Congress, it had only been ratified in thirty-five states. Three states short of the required thirty-eight to be included in the Constitution.

What dissuaded the fifteen possible states from following the thirty-five?[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

A PIE TO THE FACE AND A STOP TO THE MOVEMENT

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]n 1980, a protester at the Women’s National Republican Club threw an apple pie in Mrs. Phyllis Schlafly’s face. It was a jab at her traditional homemaking roots and a criticism of her work against the ratification of the ERA. Schlafly was the leader of STOP ERA, the counter organization that undoubtedly halted the amendment in its tracks.

Behind Schlafly's charming smile, pearl necklace, and perfectly coiffed hair, was the energy and intelligence few could rival. She was a native Missourian who likely would have described herself as primarily a mother and wife and secondarily as an activist, lawyer and author. After graduating from Washington University in just three years, she earned her Masters in political science in nine months from Radcliffe. She married John Fred Schlafly Jr., a lawyer, in 1949 and entered electoral politics shortly thereafter. Her husband was asked to run for Congress by the Republicans and when he turned them down, she volunteered. Winning the primary but losing the general election inspired her to continue to speak publicly and educate Catholics on the dangers of communism. By 1964, she published “A Choice Not an Echo” to promote Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Schlafly wrote prolifically on the issues of national defense.

When the ratification of the ERA seemed not only likely, but imminent in 1972, her initial thoughts on the amendment were that it was “something between innocuous and mildly helpful”,  after it had passed in the House, Schlafly took a closer look and deemed the amendment “dangerous”. She founded the volunteer organization, STOP ERA,  STOP being an acronym for “Stop Taking Away Our Privileges” shortly thereafter.

Schlafly attracted religious, middle class women on the conservative left who believed in one definition of family values and traditional gender roles. Ultimately, these women saw ERA as a threat to their ideals. The group’s primary fears revolved around women being conscripted to the military, taxpayer funded abortion, unisex bathrooms, elimination of benefits for widows, and gay marriage if the ERA passed. At the time, Schlafly was quoted as saying, “I simply didn’t believe we needed a constitutional amendment to protect women’s rights.” Unsurprisingly, after the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, Schlafly's support grew.

As the Constitution reflects, the collective efforts of those involved with Stop ERA successfully blocked ratification, leaving the ERA unratified and lingering in Congress ever since.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

WHY RATIFY?

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he constitutions of less than half of the United States provide either inclusive or partial guarantees of equal rights on the basis of sex. The 19th amendment remains the only amendment that acknowledges the equality of gender but only under the specification of voting.

We’ve all been operating under the assumption that our country’s laws support the idea that people are equal regardless of gender, but it’s not something we can continue to assume especially with our leadership changing hands. If it’s not on paper, then it can’t be used to further other causes and the progress already made for women’s rights can’t be protected.

Without the ratification of the ERA “the statutes and case laws that have produced major advances in women’s rights… are vulnerable to being ignored, weakened, or even reversed. By a simple majority, Congress can amend or repeal anti-discrimination laws, the Administration can negligently enforce such laws, and the Supreme Court can use the intermediate standard of review to permit certain regressive forms of sex discrimination.” Ratification would heighten the legal standard sexual discrimination cases are held to, making discrimination based on sex unconstitutional. A zero tolerance standard would therefore have to be enforced.

Looking towards a global scale, ratifying ERA would not only bring the United States up to speed with other industrialized, democratic countries, but would end the hypocrisy we have cultivated abroad. Japan and Afghanistan’s constitutions for example, were written under the direction of the US government and include equal rights for women.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

#WOMEN AGAINST FEMINISM

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]“T[/dropcap]he proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution is a political and cultural inkblot, onto which many people project their greatest hopes or deepest fears about the changing status of women.”- From EqualRightsAmendment.org

It’s tempting to believe the ideas held by Schlafly and her supporters belong to a bygone age and that the lingering question of the ERA’s ratification is unnecessary in all that the United States has accomplished for gender equality. But I encourage you to remember recent movements like Women Against Feminism which has leapfrogged its way across different social media platforms such as Tumblr and Facebook, and inspiring the hashtag #WomenAgainstFeminism. Anti-feminist ideologies still impact our cultural and legal landscapes today, making them worth exploring and understanding.

Some of the main criticisms anti-feminist’s voice include:

  • Feminism belittles and demonizes men.
  • Feminism encourages women to see themselves as victims  and men as rapists.
  • Feminism exaggerates Western women’s problems and minimizes men’s, especially in cases of men being abused by women.
  • Women can take responsibility for their own actions.
  • There is a discrepancy between the actions and the definition of feminism as well as what it used to be vs. what it is currently.

The tension between feminists and anti-feminists has inspired thought provoking analysis for both sides. It seems that women on either side of the line, have done their homework and cite the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of feminism to fit their purposes. That definition is:

  1. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
  2. organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

Each make a case for us to take a critical look at our self ascribed labels and the politics of our country, which especially in an election year, is a good thing. However, there seems to be an underly irony to Schlafly and her descendant’s perspectives.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

OUR AUNT TOMS

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]“I[/dropcap] consider you an Aunt Tom.” Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, progenitor of of Second Wave Feminism and founder of the National Organization for Women, told Schlafly in 1973. Friedan, along with modern day critics of Schlafly and the anti-feminist movement, are quick to point out one major contradiction they espouse:

“If you stay home raising kids and doing housework, you hardly have time to write those books and give those speeches urging women to stay home raising kids and doing housework.” (The Nation)

Schlafly may have been given permission by her husband to attend law school, but she was ultimately able to because feminists had broken down quotas limiting the number of women that could attend. In fact, Schlafly owes much of her success to the very popular feminist decree, “the personal is political”. During a time where matters such as marriage and sexuality we highly confidential, Schlafly's campaign was built upon showcasing and encouraging support for her brand of family values. Women today who have the option to voting or have any type of career, including remaining at home and raising children, are indebted to the same ideologies the distance themselves from.  [divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

CANDIDATES FOR EQUALITY

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]S[/dropcap]hortly before her death, Phyllis Schlafly had one last political proclamation. Addressing the audience at a Trump rally in March, she said; “I think he has the courage and the energy -- you know you have to have energy for that job -- in order to bring some changes.” (Washington Post). Aside from her endorsement, she also co- authored a book, “The Conservative Case for Donald Trump”. Which begs the question:

What would it mean for the ERA if either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton were elected?

Janet Bloomfield creator of JudgyBitch.com and the hashtag #WomenAgainstFeminism, writes her belief that:

“Trump, ironically, will be President who finally ushers in gender equality, because he doesn’t care about your genitals. He cares about America, and you are helping or you are in the way. And if you’re in the way… I suggest you move.”

Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton’s platform explicitly included the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, stating that:

“We will fight to secure equal pay for women and—after 240 years—finally enshrine the rights of women in the constitution by passing the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Perhaps the next administration will be the one where the ERA finally becomes indelibly inked into our Constitution, citizens, and way of life.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

EQUAL MEANS EQUAL- HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO

Join the campaign for ratification of the ERA.

Contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to sponsor the ERA legislation.

Vote for candidates who support ERA.