U.S. feminists fought for Equal Rights Amendment

On the eve of the Women’s March on Washington, a look back at the American women’s rights movement in 1979 as activists unsuccessfully fought for a constitutional amendment


 

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    American feminists have been fighting a tedious and losing battle to get the Equal Rights Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution. But the issue has hit the headlines once again and women’s rights groups hope to keep it there throughout the presidential election campaign. It may be their last chance to keep discussion alive.

    In 1980, pro-ERA organizations plan to support candidates at the national and local levels who may be able to shift the balance in their favour. The National Organization of Women (NOW) plans to meet again in January to decide whether to endorse any presidential candidate (they are leaning toward Ted Kennedy). The Women’s Campaign Fund—which gives financial assistance and campaign advice to women candidates—will also meet early in 1980.

    NOW jolted the women’s movement earlier this month by proclaiming it would not support President Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid. Said NOW President Eleanor Smeal: “The president has given the appearance of working on ERA, but his real support has not matched his promised support.” The White House was quick to retaliate by withdrawing an invitation to Smeal to join other women’s group leaders and the president to discuss the ERA.

    It is now seven years since the battle for the ERA began and the present position is that it must be ratified in 38 states by June, 1982, to win adoption. So far 35 states have backed the amendment—but not one new state has been added to the list since Carter assumed office. While supporters point to his significant contribution to other women’s issues—he has named three women cabinet members and appointed 28 women as federal judges—his ERA record is poor.

    While other prominent feminists have criticized Carter’s performance, no other group has taken as sharp action as NOW. There is some feeling that NOW may have backed itself into a corner if the presidential race turns out to be between Carter and a conservative Republican like Ronald Reagan, who has courted the anti-ERA groups. But former congresswoman Bella Abzug— fired by Carter as co-chairwoman of his National Advisory Committee for Women—said that while she doesn’t agree with NOW’S strategy, “I can certainly sympathize with being fed up with Carter. He went wrong by not using his power to get the ERA ratified.” Kennedy has also attacked the president for his inaction. Earlier this month he told women’s rights leaders: “The issue is a matter of basic principle that cannot be compromised. For the next president, a first priority must be to make the Equal Rights Amendment the 27th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

    That may be easy for candidate Kennedy to say, but NOW and a host of other pro-ERA groups know that it is proving difficult to do. The amendment was passed by the U.S. Congress in March, 1972, and within 20 months 27 states had ratified it. Between 1974 and 1977 eight more states followed suit, but from then on it has been an uphill battle. Of the remaining 15 states, only four—Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia—are likely to consider the amendment seriously. Feminists had to fight a heated battle to extend ratification voting, until 1982, earlier this year when the first deadline ran out.

    As if trying to persuade three more states to ratify the ERA weren’t enough, at least one state, Idaho, is trying to rescind an earlier pro-ERA vote. A federal district court judge in Boise is considering a case that would give a state the right to change its mind on a constitutional amendment. The same case could declare the “ERA extension” deadline of 1982 unconstitutional. Judge Marion Callister is likely to begin hearing the case in February or March.

    But the problems with this case go beyond the issues. NOW has asked that Callister disqualify himself from the case because he is a Mormon (the Mormon Church—which recently excommunicated a member who actively supports the ERA—opposes both the amendment and the extended deadline). Said NOW President Smeal: “How can a trial by a high-ranking official of the priesthood of the Mormon Church possibly have the appearance of impartiality when we know of the church’s official position against the ERA and ERA extension?” But Callister has refused to step down.

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