Who Killed the ERA?

Diana Mara Henry
First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, and Betty Ford, International Women’s Year presiding officer Bella Abzug, and Torch of Freedom relay runners at the opening ceremonies of the National Women’s Conference, Houston, November 1977

In the summer of 1968, George Wallace, in between terms as governor of Alabama, concluded that endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment for women would help his third-party presidential campaign. He declared his support in a telegram to Alice Paul, the head of the National Women’s Party, who had cowritten the first draft of the amendment in 1923 and had been campaigning for it for forty-five years. The pro-segregationist Wallace was hardly alone among conservative politicians in his position. Strom Thurmond, a Republican senator from South Carolina, likewise supported the amendment, saying in 1972 that it “represents the just desire of many women in our pluralistic society to be allowed a full and free participation in the American way of life.”

In fact, the Republican platform had supported the Equal Rights Amendment as far back as 1940; opposition had come mainly from pro-labor Democrats, who feared that equal treatment for men and women would mean an end to legislation that protected women from dangerous jobs. Labor opposition waned as the increasingly active feminist movement—frustrated that the Supreme Court had never interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee to apply to discrimination on the basis of sex—made passing the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority. In 1971 the House approved the ERA by a vote of 354–24. The Senate followed the next year by a vote of 84–8. The proposed amendment’s language was straightforward: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The necessary ratification by three quarters of the states—the magic number of thirty-eight—looked eminently achievable.

Shortly after Congress’s endorsement, however, Wallace repudiated his earlier support, and in his platform proclaimed:

Women of the American Party say “NO” to this insidious socialistic plan to destroy the home, make women slaves of the government, and their children wards of the state.

In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Republican National Convention dropped the party’s long-standing support from its platform. Momentum for ratification slowed dramatically. Opponents raised fears that the amendment would subject women to the military draft and lead inexorably to unisex bathrooms. When the June 30, 1982, deadline that Congress had set for ratification arrived, only thirty-five of the necessary thirty-eight state legislatures had voted yes, and the ERA died.

What happened? How did an effort born in bipartisanship end in polarizing defeat? Clearly, the ERA prompted a profound debate about the place of women not only in the workforce but in the home, the family, and society itself, in the course of which the amendment became entangled…


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