Thirty years ago, on June 30, 1982, the deadline for passing the Equal Rights Amendment expired, falling three states short of the 38 needed to clear the three-quarter bar required for ratification. Illinois was one of the only northern states failing to ratify.
A devastating defeat? Depends on how you look at it.
The history of ERA goes back a long way. After women won the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920 (when Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), the women’s rights movement did not rest on their laurels. Activist Alice Paul pushed for an amendment guaranteeing equal rights, which was introduced in Congress for the first time in 1923.
The text read (and still reads): “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Seems simple enough, but nothing is ever simple when it concerns progress in this country. For a long time, ironically, it was the Republicans who supported ERA and not the Democrats (who, along with union leaders, feared that protections against labor exploitation of women would be wiped out). Support for the ERA was in the Republican Party platform until 1976. When ERA finally passed both houses of Congress in 1972, President Richard Nixon pledged his support. It seemed a no-brainer.
In the state legislatures, 30 states quickly approved it. That number climbed to 35, then stopped cold.
A couple of things did it in. First, Congress attached an unusual seven-year deadline for ratification. That deadline was extended for three years in 1979, but no states ratified afterward, thanks in large part to a very vocal opposition led by the well-financed Phyllis Schlafly, who painted a vivid picture of unisex toilets and women in foxholes, among other worst-case scenarios that were either highly unlikely or eventually became a reality anyway (e.g. women in combat).
Women (and men) from Oak Park and River Forest were in the thick of the fight, both for women’s suffrage (the 19th Century Woman’s Club, now the 19th Century Charitable Association, was formed in 1892, partly to work for that cause) and to pass the ERA.
Teresa Powell, now Oak Park’s village clerk, was very much involved, as was Gail Bien, a member of the League of Women Voters. They weren’t alone, of course (see sidebar).
Powell had just had the first of her four children shortly after she moved to Oak Park in September of 1976. She joined Common Cause and at one of the local meetings, someone suggested she attend an Illinois ERA meeting.
“I was really impressed with the group that was starting the Illinois Women’s Political Caucus,” she recalls. State Rep. Susan Catania or DuPage County was the organization’s first chair. Powell eventually became chair of the Chicago chapter and started seven suburban groups.
As a stay-at-home mom, she also joined the Homemakers Equal Rights Association (HERA), which was formed to combat Schlafly’s insinuation that pro-ERA women were anti-family.
“She had lots of money behind her,” Powell recalls. “She’d have all these women bake coconut cakes and they’d bring them to the General Assembly to give to the legislators. So we came with little pink silk roses. It turned out they cost 59 cents each, which was the amount women made for every dollar men made in the same positions.” (It’s now up to 78 cents for every dollar made by men.)
Gail Bien was a member of the League of Women Voters, which formed an ERA committee in March of 1977. Bien ended up as the coordinator of the local coalition they created, called ERA Metro West.
“We had a fundraiser at Lyn Longwell’s house, and we held a local rally,” Bien recalls. “Sister Agnes McGrath from Rosary College [now Dominican University] spoke at the rally. She was a real rabble-rouser. Just a delightful woman.” Sr. Kay Ashe was another Rosary nun who got her students involved.
“Bob Downs was one of the state reps from our area [18th District],” Bien says, “and he was very supportive.” Downs confirmed that but gave Susan Catania most of the credit as the driving force for the measure among suburban state representatives.
Lots of organizations got involved, including the local chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Powell recalls making frequent trips down to Springfield.
“I lobbied Henry Hyde at one point when John was a baby,” Powell remembers. As her infant son crumbled crackers on the Capitol carpet, she listened to Hyde’s stonewalling.
“He said, ‘I have a different language.’ ERA was too complicated. It was, what, 24 words? He said his [approach] was better because it would protect women. He wasn’t serious. It was very frustrating because they had just enough people to keep it from going through.”
One of those was state Rep. Redd Griffin of Oak Park, newly appointed by the Republicans, who found himself in the crucible just as ERA was coming to a head in the early ’80s. He eventually voted against it (see sidebar on page 32).
Bien recalls a huge ERA march in Chicago in 1980 with approximately 100,000 people. Mayor Jane Byrne spoke. Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Jesse Jackson and Eleanor Smeal of NOW attended. Participants wore white sashes in honor of the suffragists from 1920. Powell remembers members of the Homemakers group wearing their wedding dresses.
“I think there was a group with strollers and wedding dresses marching down the street,” she says. Powell also traveled to Washington and joined a group that met with President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
Communication, of course, was much more primitive and labor-intensive in those pre-Internet days.
“I had a shoebox full of 3×5-inch cards,” Powell recalls, “with names, addresses and phone numbers. We would very occasionally make a long-distance call, but mostly it was by mail. I remember when I discovered Avery labels, where you could type addresses on a single sheet, Xerox the sheet and have a whole set of mailings. I thought it was the best thing in the world. Today, the organizing principles would be completely different.”
Organizing was the critical element. Women formed groups because of ERA and came together like nothing since the suffrage movement 60 years earlier.
“It really energized and brought people together,” says Bien. “There was Equal Rights and also abortion rights. All those groups started working together, building coalitions.”
“And even crossing unlikely boundaries,” added Powell. “I was a member of La Leche League, and I offered to do a presentation on the ERA with Roberta Johnson, who had written the original La Leche Cookbook. I had to stop and change a diaper at one point. That was another place where we were reaching out to explain why equal rights matters for everybody.”
It was a different world for women then. Powell grew up in Central Florida, where she was “the first in my family to get a college degree. My father had gone to night school. My mother had gone to a two-year business school. I realize looking back now that things really have changed. The very fact of organizing and talking had already begun to change things.”
“It was a nurturing and seed-bearing period for women blossoming out,” said Bien. “The experience overall was a positive one, even though it ended in defeat.”
“Women learned to campaign and to lobby,” says Powell, “and may not have had any occasion to explore those possibilities. Some decided to throw their hat in the ring and run for office. Some of the people I worked with went on to fame and fortune.”
Powell had four kids from 1976 to ’83, but it didn’t slow her down.
“I was bitten by the political bug,” she says. “Getting involved in ERA has given me a lifelong belief in the importance of getting involved in government, being part of the process and knowing what’s going on.
“Figuring out the babysitting arrangements or packing lunches when I took them to Springfield, throwing the diaper bag over my shoulder, there was just a real excitement about being part of it — certainly when we were gathering in these big groups [we were] thinking, ‘This could make all the difference.’ It was gathering together, whether it was meeting here or in Springfield or wherever, to see that we had this common purpose.”
“It was a touchstone,” Bien says.
“It was a coalition among women who didn’t all share the same perspective across the board on all the other issues that were lumped in with this. We had some differences and we had long discussions,” recalls Powell.
“There was an amazing cross-section of people, and ages too,” adds Bien. “We had women in their 60s, 70s and 80s working, and you had those in their early 20s. It was a nice mixture.”
And they had to make it up as they went along. “For a while,” recalls Powell, “my phone was the ERA hotline for the state of Illinois. They said, ‘Can someone do this?’ I said, ‘Oh sure, I’m home with the baby.’ So in my kitchen, I learned how to answer all the questions people had. Some were: What did ERA really mean? Did it mean we’d all have to use the same bathroom? And I replied, ‘You mean like on a plane?’
They also wondered if their daughters would be drafted.
“Women in combat was one of the big issues. We don’t want women anywhere near combat. Well, look at today, the ability to take on leadership positions in the military. That’s gone forward anyway.”
Ultimately, Powell and Bien think the measure lost because of the deadline. It emboldened the opposition, which was well funded. They knew all they had to do was stall until June 30, 1982.
In spite of that, rights for women as well as men have progressed in the last 30 years. “And yet,” Powell points out, “why not have it in the Constitution that we are equal? What is the threat?” If it had passed, she adds, “It would have been the basis for stronger arguments for women to step right into the spotlight. It probably would have sped up what’s already happened. And who knows where it might have gone beyond that?”
But she learned an important political lesson. As one of the fundraising quilts she bought at an ERA rally put it, “Struggle is forever.”
“We should never take for granted that what we have today is what will remain,” she says.
As for passing the torch, Bien would tell young women today, “It’s the working together, building coalitions, and the importance of the role that government plays in your life, and how important it is to be knowledgeable and involved to whatever degree you’re able, going through and making life what you think it could be. If you think there are things to improve, then get active and work for it. In the long run, you’re going to gain knowledge and impact and sometimes make improvements you’re not always aware of.”
“One thing that has been shown in studies,” Powell adds, “is that when women get the resources, they spend it not just on themselves but on their family. They try to make life better for the whole family. We don’t want to lose the resources that half of the human race offers, that contribution to the greater wisdom on how we go forward.”
Was ERA a defeat? Depends on how you look back on it.