From Women's Suffrage to the ERA, a Century-Long Push for EqualityWatch the videoSee the video and lesson plan
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 1-16-20):
EILEEN FILLER-CORN (VIRGINIA HOUSE SPEAKER): For the women of Virginia and the women of America, the resolution has finally passed!
NARRATION: Last January, Virginia became the latest state to ratify a constitutional amendment that the country has been fighting about for nearly 100 years: the Equal Rights Amendment. But the move quickly drew challenges.
NEWS REPORT: Five Republican Attorneys General are seeking to block an effort to see the Equal Rights Amendment adopted into the U.S. Constitution.
NARRATION: The heart of the ERA is only 24 words. It would bar discrimination on the basis of sex…and the story of its long, circuitous path illustrates the changing debate in America about women’s rights.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILM, 1917-1919):
NEWS REEL: The most dramatic step to date in women’s campaign for equal rights.
NARRATION: In 1920, women had just secured the right to vote.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILM, 1917-1919):
NEWS REEL: Women in Illinois are quick to register and vote while energetic suffrage adherents realize their long campaign is over.
NARRATION: The struggle for suffrage had taken decades. And the final few years had pushed leaders like Alice Paul, a founder of the National Woman’s Party, to take radical steps for the cause.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILM, 1917-1919):
NEWS REEL: Ms. Paul, a dramatic campaigner, had gone on a hunger strike earlier in an effort to force congressional action.
NARRATION: But for Paul, winning the vote was just the beginning.
JULIE C. SUK (AUTHOR OF “WE THE WOMEN: THE UNSTOPPABLE MOTHERS OF THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT”): Many states had laws that made it difficult for married women to work. If married women worked, they didn’t necessarily own their own earnings. And they didn’t have the same rights as husbands and fathers over their own children. So they thought that if they had a constitutional amendment that made discrimination against women illegal and unconstitutional, that would be a huge step towards women actually being equal in society.
NARRATION: Paul and her collaborators proposed what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment, and it was first introduced into Congress in 1923. But the seemingly straightforward idea raised concerns from many of the women who had worked together for suffrage.
JULIE C. SUK: They were worried that it would wipe out laws that they had worked hard to get on the books to actually protect women in the workplace.
ARCHIVAL (GETTY FOOTAGE):
NEWS REEL: America at the turn of the century…on the assembly line, as in the home, a woman’s work is never done.
NARRATION: Those special protections for women, like shorter work days, were hard won by progressive reformers like Florence Kelley, and based on the idea that women, particularly vulnerable to exploitation, needed to be treated differently. The reformers – and labor unions – feared these protections would be undercut by an amendment guaranteeing equality of the sexes.
JULIE C. SUK: That fear was not unreasonable, because the Supreme Court did strike down a law that guaranteed minimum wages for women. They pointed to the fact that women now have the constitutional right to vote as evidence that sex inequality was on its way out.
NARRATION: But for people like Alice Paul, special labor protections for one gender were at odds with the idea of equality.
ARCHIVAL (ALICE PAUL INSTITUTE, 1972):
ALICE PAUL: Well, we kept saying, “But we stand for equality and your special labor laws are not in harmony with the principle that we’re standing for.”
NARRATION: It was a debate that would follow the ERA through time, as women entered the workforce in increasing numbers.
NEWS REEL: Employers find that women can do many jobs as well as men, some jobs better.
NARRATION: And Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party continued to press their case for the ERA over the next four decades.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-9-70):
NEWS REPORT: Surrounded by memories of suffragettes, these ladies have pursued the goal of a fair and equal break rate for American women.
NARRATION: By the early 1970s, labor opposition to the ERA was receding, in part because labor protections were expanding for both women and men. And with growing bipartisan support in Congress, and momentum from the burgeoning women’s movement…
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 9-9-70):
PROTESTER: Equal rights to have a job, to have respect, to not be viewed as a piece of meat.
NARRATION:…the calls for the ERA were becoming too powerful to ignore.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-20-18):
ALICE PAUL: Gradually instead of a little tiny cluster, we now have 10 million women backing this particular measure before Congress.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-10-71):
BELLA ABZUG (FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN, D-NY): We will settle for nothing less in the ultimate than equal representation in all levels of political power.
NARRATION: Congresswoman Martha Griffiths had repeatedly introduced the ERA into the House over the years and finally succeeded in forcing the amendment onto the floor in 1970, where the broad backing for the measure soon became clear.
JULIE C. SUK: Once it did get a full debate, well over 90 percent of the house actually voted for the ERA.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-112-71):
WALTER CRONKITE: T_he House, today, by the overwhelming vote of 354 to 23, passed a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee equal rights for women._
NARRATION: By 1972, both the House and Senate had passed the ERA.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-22-72):
NEWS REPORT: The agreement now goes to the states and must be ratified by 38 of them.
NARRATION: And within one year, 30 states, out of the 38 needed, ratified it. But then, an opposition movement emerged, led by conservative Phyllis Schlafly.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-7-73):
PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY: The wife has the legal right to be a full time wife and mother supported by her husband.
NARRATION: The campaign found a receptive audience among women concerned about changing gender roles.
PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY: The major objection to the Equal Rights Amendment is that it would take away from women rights and privileges which they now have.
NARRATION: Schlafly’s push dovetailed with the rise of the powerful religious right, and ERA proponents were stunned.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-11-81):
NEWS REPORT: The women here now fear they are facing an organized enemy, the Moral Majority and conservative groups who have found a newly powerful voice since the 1980 election.
NARRATION: In the end, the amendment fell three states short when the ratification period expired in 1982.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1982):
DAN RATHER: The chimes strike at midnight for ratification of the ERA. At that moment the era becomes DOA.
NARRATION: But now over three decades later, as the number of women in Congress and State Houses reaches a record high, a new generation is reviving the ERA.
ARCHIVAL (NEWS3, 1-16-20):
JENNIFER CARROL FOY (VIRGINIA HOUSE OF DELEGATES): There is only one way to spell equality and that is simply E-R-A.
NARRATION: Women in the Nevada, Illinois and Virginia legislatures are leading the fight.
ARCHIVAL (NEWSCHANNEL5, 1-1-20):
NEWS REPORT: In the wake of the Me Too Movement, and the fight for equal pay, the ERA came back to life.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 3-3-19):
PROTESTERS: What do we want? Equal rights! When do we want it? Now!
ARCHIVAL (ALJAZEERA, 2-13-20):
NEWS REPORT: Democrats in Congress are pushing for its addition to the constitution.
NARRATION: The House of Representatives voted to remove the 1982 deadline. But Senate Republicans and the Trump administration remain opposed. And there’s also the question of the five states that have tried to rescind their ratifications of the amendment.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 1-15-20):
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ongoing litigation makes it unclear when, or if it will be added.
NARRATION: Today, a century after the ERA was first conceived, it continues to hang in limbo. Over the decades, women have made gains through other changes in laws and policies. But the need for ratification remains for many of the women at the center of the struggle now – as a way to recognize the work that’s come before, and to ensure women’s rights going forward.
JENNIFER CARROL FOY (VIRGINIA HOUSE OF DELEGATES): When you enshrine my constitutional rights, as a human being equal to men, well then that is the only thing that’s acceptable.
ARCHIVAL (NEVADA LEGISLATURE, 3-7-17):
PAT SPEARMAN (NEVADA STATE SENATOR): Persistence, faith, and hope fuel the indomitable spirit of this movement.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-30-19):
PAT SPEARMAN: We got tired but we did not faint. We became weary but we did not stop. History demands that we take a stand. The struggle continues and the work is not done.