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The Equal Rights Amendment Persists: 45 And Still Unratified

Susan Stephens/WNIJ

It was 1972.

The Vietnam War dragged on. A break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., was the beginning of the end for President Richard Nixon. The Godfather and The Price Is Right debuted, as well as the video game Pong.

1972 was the last time a man walked on the moon. And Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, sending it to the states for ratification.

Forty-five years later, the ERA needs approval from two more states to become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Maybe. And Illinois might play a role in the fate of the surprisingly controversial ERA.

Extended version of this week's Friday Forum on the Equal Rights Amendment.

We need to start at the beginning. In 1923, three years after American women won the right to vote, suffragist Alice Paul decided to take the next big step: getting equal rights for women and men enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. She proposed this bold idea:

"Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."

Suffragette and women's rights activist Alice Paul
Credit Library of Congress
Suffragette and women's rights activist Alice Paul

Labor unions opposed Paul’s proposed amendment, for fear of losing workplace protections they had won. Some socially conservative groups decried it as anti-family and against nature.  

But Republicans added it to their national platform in 1940. Democrats did a few years later. It was introduced repeatedly in Congress but went nowhere. Until 1972. The Senate, then the House, passed the Equal Rights Amendment.

Alice Paul had changed the language by then, but it was essentially the same idea she had been pushing for half a century.

"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 ERA was sent to the states for ratification, needing approval from 38 states within the next seven years. 35 states signed on. Not Illinois. The deadline for ratification was extended to 1982. Still nothing. Why?

Phyllis Schlafly headed the 1970s effort to block the ERA in the Illinois General Assembly.
Credit Gage Skidmore / CC by SA 3.0
CC by SA 3.0
Phyllis Schlafly headed the 1970s effort to block the ERA in the Illinois General Assembly.

Enter Phyllis Schlafly, Constitutional attorney and conservative activist. She argued that the ERA would send women into combat, deprive housewives of financial support, and end other privileges women already had.

Schlafly and her STOP ERA campaign even delivered homemade pies and jams to Illinois lawmakers to press their point that approving the amendment would hurt homemakers. It worked.

Illinois -- a state that has enshrined equal rights with similar language in its own constitution -- never got behind the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

But the issue never went away. And there are state lawmakers pushing to get it passed this spring. State Sen. Heather Steans,D-Chicago, introduced the latest resolution to ratify the ERA in Illinois.

At an ERA forum in Rockford this fall, Steans told the crowd, “The biggest issue is that people just don’t think it matters any longer, that we already have it, that this is dead anyway.”

At that same forum, Lisa Kaihara of the Illinois League of Women Voters said, in a tone hinting at disbelief, “You’re gonna laugh. I thought this was low-hanging fruit. We can get this done in no time at all, I was not thinking here were any objections to it. The challenge is to get it out to younger people who don’t think this is something important.”

NIU history Prof. Amanda Littauer
NIU history Prof. Amanda Littauer

Amanda Littauer has noticed. She’s a history professor at Northern Illinois University and acting director of the NIU Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

My students often don’t know what it is, or they associate it with the 70s and assume it was ratified and adopted,” Littauer said. “They are surprised that there is nothing in our constitution that says women are equal to men. We are still doing this work. They are quite surprised. And often unpleasantly so. They are often offended that work hasn’t gotten done already.”

Just because they are surprised doesn’t mean they are ready to pick up the “ERA NOW!” signs their grandmothers dropped.

Educated white middle-class women tend to be most confident that we are not affected by sexism,” Littauer said. “We don’t want to think of ourselves that way! We were raised to believe we can do anything, we will be judged on our merits. It’s painful to face the reality that that’s not the case most of the time. Admitting that requires an uncomfortable change of mindset.”

But this might be exactly the right time to motivate young women to mobilize for the Equal Rights Amendment. Some are still looking for outlets for the activist energy stirred by the Women’s Marches  held across the country around the time of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. And the #MeToo campaign has many looking for ways to address sexual harassment in workplaces.

Illinois State Senators Heather Steans, left, Steve Stadelman and Dave Syverson
Illinois State Senators Heather Steans, left, Steve Stadelman and Dave Syverson

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, says passage of the ERA in Illinois could be another unifying factor for women. He supports the amendment and took part in the panel discussion with Steans.

“It’s not a panacea, but a tool," said Stadelman. “It serves as a sea wall against the ebb and flow of political process. Our state and country need to move forward on this legislation. 45 years of waiting is long enough!”

Not everyone agrees. Some, like Laurie Higgins, would like to see the ERA fade into history. “How did this ever get portrayed as a woman’s issue?” she asked rhetorically, after reading the 24-word amendment to emphasize the fact that it doesn’t even mention women.

Higgins is the cultural-affairs writer with the Illinois Family Institute, a group with the mission of “boldly bringing biblical perspectives to public policy.” The IFI has picked up Phyllis Schlafly’s mantle in opposing the ERA in Illinois, saying it will send more women into combat, remove gender restrictions from public restrooms and locker rooms, and make bigamy legal.

“What rights are women right now deprived? The right to vote?” Higgins laughed. “The right to assemble? Associate? Speak? Exercise their religion? I mean, none of them! It’s wholly unnecessary.”

Higgins says the real goal of the ERA today is to increase access to abortion and promote transgender lifestyles.  The end goal is to eradicate public recognition of sex differences everywhere for everyone. So what their goal is, is coed everything for everyone.”

Littauer says it would be up to the courts to decide if the Equal Rights Amendment protects LGBT people from discrimination. She says that possibility is another reason she supports it. It’s unclear how this will be interpreted,” she said. “So that might be why people project their worst fears onto the legislation.”

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, says his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment is more practical -- and it’s not exactly opposition. The Illinois Senate last voted on the ERA in 2014. Syverson voted “present.”

“I voted present because I’m not opposed to equal rights; that’s why we have that already in place,” he said. “I voted present because it’s a meaningless gesture. The deadline was back in the 70s and passing this doesn’t change anything. I’d rather say we all support equality. Let’s deal with things that are much more important in changing the lives of women in Illinois, like the economy.”

Syverson says he thinks bringing back the ERA debate in the next legislative session, a big election year, is just a political distraction.

Lisa Kaihara, of the League of Women Voters, says the timing of the renewed push to ratify the ERA is symbolic, because “if we can get this done by 2018 -- the last two states -- it takes two years to go into effect. That takes us to 2020, 100 years after women got the right to vote.

So what would it take to have Alice Paul’s Equal Rights proposal become the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution?  Some recommend starting over, taking a new proposal to Congress. A more popular idea is The Three-State Strategy -- now The Two State Strategy, since Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA this past March.

Supporters believe it doesn’t matter that they missed the deadline by 35 years: If they can get two more states to ratify, they will let the courts sort it out. They point to the 27th amendment, regarding Congressional pay. It was ratified in 1992, 203 years after it was approved by Congress.

Senator Steans is working to secure enough votes on her side of the aisle; she’s a couple short. The reason for that goes back further than the century-old issue she’s trying to resolve.

Steans says some of those who won’t commit have told her that they will get aboard – but not until the March primary election is over and they feel safer announcing their support.

Copyright 2021 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Susan’s parents should have known she’d end up in radio: her favorite toys were tape recorders, cameras, notepads, and books. Many years later, she’s an award-winning reporter at her favorite radio station. Formerly WNIJ’s News Director, she asked to return to the role of full-time reporter/anchor/utility player in 2010 (less paperwork, more reporting!). Her #1 goal is to tell the most compelling stories in the fewest words possible…all the better if a little humor can be thrown into the mix. It should come as no surprise, then, that she can whip up a haiku for any occasion. She also enjoys the Detroit Tigers, learning pioneer skills (Gardening, canning, and the like. Just in case.), traveling with friends, and pretending she’s going to get around to playing her theremin.