19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio

The Fight over ERA

In 1923, following the passing of the 19th amendment, suffragettes Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman proposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to grant equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex. Since its conception, supporters and critics alike have debated the definition of equal rights between men and women. For example, Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party believed that men and women should be equal in every aspect, which contradicted protective legislation that gave women the right to shorter work hours and no night work. Critics asserted that losing these benefits would not be worth the possible gain of equality from the ERA.

For nearly a century, people have debated the ERA. In the 1970s, a significant push occurred for the amendment to be ratified. After it passed both in the House and Senate in 1971 and 1972, state legislatures began considering the ERA with a seven-year deadline to get three-fourths (38) of the states to ratify the amendment.

While ratification at first seemed attainable, the ERA soon attracted much controversy. Opponents such as Phyllis Schlafly organized a campaign called “STOP ERA” where STOP was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”. Schlafly argued against the amendment in defense of traditional gender roles. She believed that the passing of the amendment would harm women by eliminating the benefits they enjoyed, such as subjecting them to conscription.  In her campaign, she utilized symbols of the traditional American housewives. For example, she brought baked goods to state legislators and campaigned with slogans such as "Preserve us from a Congressional jam; Vote against the ERA sham."

Experts credit Schlafly with helping prevent the passing of the ERA. When Schlafly began her campaign in 1972, 28 out of the required 38 states had already ratified the amendment. After she started her protest, another seven states ratified but five states withdrew their previous ratification. The ERA narrowly missed the number of states required, in large part due to Schlafly’s campaign. She successfully capitalized on the nation’s fears of losing traditional gender roles.

The actions of Schlafly and other ERA opponents can be compared to those of the anti-suffragists. Both groups feared the changes that would come from passing the amendments. Anti-suffragists believed that the passing of the 19th Amendment could cause negative repercussions for women such as no longer being given preference in child custody cases. Likewise, opponents of the ERA worried that the amendment would make traditional gender roles obsolete, especially threatening the security of housewives without job skills.

Currently, the fight to ratify the ERA still carries on. In January of 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, officially meeting the three-fourths requirement. However, the certification of the ERA in the U.S. Constitution still remains to be seen. While Virginia became the final state needed, it did so after the original deadline. Additionally, several of the original states that ratified the ERA retracted their ratification. As such, the future of the ERA has yet to be determined.

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