Feminist Legislative Series

Feminist.com Explainer: The Equal Rights Amendment

What's going on with the ERA?

Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendment has gained plenty of attention and supports in 2020 as Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it. But what exactly is the amendment? Where did it come from, and what does recent news about its ratification mean?

Here's what you need to know.

The beginning
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was initially written in 1923 by members of the National Women's Party, which was founded in 1912 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. It failed to gain traction due to divisions within the women's movement, though; working-class women were concerned the amendment would work against workplace protection laws, like those that made factories safer and limited the hours women were required to work.
The second wave

Starting in the 1950s, Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths introduced the Equal Rights Amendment on the House floor every year, but failed. In 1971, the ERA passed in the House, and then in 1972, it passed in the Senate. Congress set a seven-year deadline for at least three-quarters of the states — or 38 — to ratify the amendment.

As passed, this is the language contained in the ERA:

  • 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 Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
  • This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
Enter Phyllis Schlafly

Soon after the ERA was sent for ratification, political organizer Phyllis Schlafly founded the organization "STOP ERA" to oppose it. She argued the ERA would lead to women losing special privileges, like the right to be supported by their husbands, and introduce the dangers of gender-neutral bathrooms and women being drafted into the military.

Still, by 1974, 33 states ratified the ERA. By 1979, though, the ERA was only ratified by 35 states. In 1978, Congress extended the deadline to 1982, but no additional states ratified the amendment during that time.

The "three-state strategy"

Decades later, activists adopted a "three-state strategy" to finally meet the 38 state goal, despite the passed deadline. And they were successful: Nevada ratified the amendment in 2017, Illinois ratified it in 2018, and Virginia did so in 2020.

What comes next?

Currently, two lawsuits over the ERA remain ongoing. In early March, 2021, a federal court halted an effort to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution based on the 1979 deadline set for ratification, but did not rule on whether Congress could retroactively rescind the deadline. Just two weeks later, the House voted to remove the ratification deadline for the ERA, declaring the amendment would become part of the Constitution once three-fourths of the states have ratified it.

In addition to questions about the deadline for ratification, some have also pointed out that five states — Nebraska, Idaho, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Tennessee — have rescinded their ratification of the amendment over the years. Legal scholars debate whether or not that recession is valid, but if it is, it could prove a blow to the amendment.

In terms of immediate next steps, the Senate must also approve the legislation recently passed by the House. Some anticipate the Supreme Court will also get involved. Nonetheless, women’s rights advocates remain optimistic that after almost a century since it was first introduced, the Equal Rights Amendment could finally become a Constitutional amendment.

To stay informed and for more information visit the ERA Coalition and NOW.