Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Glass Ceiling: The Failure of the Equal Rights Amendment

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the limits of what second wave feminism was able to achieve in a sexist political and cultural atmosphere and the opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Radical feminist groups like Cell 16 held little appeal for most women. Most feminists shared no desire with Cell 16’s members to separate into female-only communes or believed in male inferiority. Most wanted fair pay for their work, equal opportunity in the job market, property rights, medical control over their own bodies and for the law to take spousal abuse and rape seriously. Yet, influential men such as Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W. Virginia) mocked even mainstream feminist leaders as “braless bubbleheads,” and CBS News commentator Eric Severeid attributed women’s claims of discrimination to hysteria.

In spite of male hostility, feminists successfully won a place for women in American politics. In 1968, women constituted only 13 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention and 17 percent of the Republican National Convention delegates the same year. Feminists realized that women’s issues would not be taken seriously unless more women were elected to public office. There were no women in the United States Senate in 1968 and only nine women in the United States House out of 435 members the same year.

In 1971, veteran feminists like Friedan, civil rights campaigner Fannie Lou Hamer, and those belonging to the tiny circle of women in the United States Congress like Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm (who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to the House), organized the National Women’s Political Caucus to increase the number of women members of Congress, governors, legislators, mayors and city council members.

The 1970s would see the election of Ella Grasso as governor of Connecticut and Dixie Lee Ray as the chief executive in Washington State. Mary Anne Krupsak won election as the lieutenant governor of New York under the slogan, “She’s Not One of the Boys” while Abzug won a seat in the New York congressional delegation, declared that, “This woman belongs in the house – The House of Representatives.” All these women were Democrats.

Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s wrote, voted for and successfully lobbied for several landmark laws benefiting women. For instance, Title IX of a 1972 federal law, the Education Amendments Act, banned sex discrimination in university admissions, faculty hiring and college athletics, which slowly and steadily increased the number of women earning advanced degrees. In 1960, only 1.7 percent of women 25 years old and beyond had an education beyond a bachelor’s degree, compared to 4.4 percent of men. By 2009, the numbers had reached near parity, with 10,1 percent of women and 11.1 percent of men taking course work beyond a four-year diploma. By 2000, women between the ages of 25 and 29 for the first time constituted a majority of those holding at least a master’s degree, with women representing 58 percent of MAs in that age group.

Nevertheless, in the 1970s a considerable gulf existed between law and enforcement. For instance the Equal Pay of 1963 had been strengthened by two Supreme Court decisions. In “Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co.” (1970), the court majority held that jobs don’t have to be identical in order for the Equal Pay Act to apply, but only have to be "substantially equal." This ruling meant that an employer could not alter job titles or make minor alterations in job descriptions for women employees to justify paying them less. In the 1974 “Corning Glass v. Brennan” case, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could not legally pay women less because that was the “going market rate” paid in a locality or pay men more for doing the same work “simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women." In spite of the law and such court rulings, however, by 2010 women still earned only 78 cents for every dollar earned by their male peers.


The continued barriers to women in the workplace sparked a movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” said the first section of the brisk, 56-word proposed amendment. A version of the ERA, as it was called, had been written by Alice Paul in 1923 and had been introduced in every session of Congress since, until the modern version passed both houses of Congress in 1972.

A seven-year deadline was placed on ratification and the amendment went to the states. “In the beginning, the ERA seemed certain to pass,” Schulman said. Hawaii became the first state to ratify it, on the very day it passed the Congress. Three days after Congressional passage, the amendment had also been approved by Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, and New Hampshire. Within five years, the ERA had been ratified by 35 states, just three short of the 38 needed for it to become part of the Constitution. Majority opinion supported the ERA, with the amendment winning the backing of as much as 74 percent of voters polled in 1974. Opponents never represented even a third of voters.

Momentum, however, had undeniably slowed by 1977. The ERA was partly a victim of feminism’s successes. With laws already on the books banning discrimination in hiring and pay, some Americans found the need for the amendment less urgent. As Schulman pointed out, the states that had not passed the ERA were heavily concentrated in the highly conservative and religiously fundamentalist South and Western Mormon areas which saw the proposed amendment as a threat to the traditional, “God-mandated” role of women as mothers and homemakers. The amendment was a “definite violation of holy scripture,” declared TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, who insisted that the Bible defined “the husband as the head of the wife.”

Conservative Southern Protestants saw the amendment as one more assault on traditional values by the same liberals who had ended racial segregation. Many of the ERA’s opponents like Falwell had also supported Jim Crow. A conservative woman who had campaigned for Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, Phyllis Schlafly, led the group STOP ERA and would battle the entire feminist agenda. “Superficially, Schlafly seemed an odd candidate to lead women against feminism,” Schulman said. “A master organizer and brilliant speaker, she had run for public office, published several books, and lectured around the nation. In 1970s terms, she appeared the model of a liberated woman.”

Schlafly was conservative across the board, supporting the war in Vietnam, and opposing gay rights, social welfare programs and federal involvement in education. A strongly independent woman, she acted submissive when it suited her political purposes, often telling her audiences that she was speaking to them only because she had her husband’s permission.
Schlafly warned that the ERA would end special protections for women, who might become eligible for the draft and placed in combat. Men would be “free to abandon their wives without the obligations of alimony or child support,” as Schulman summarizes her arguments. Schlafly also warned that the ERA would result in unisex restrooms in public buildings and the legalization of gay marriage.

Congress extended the deadline for ratification until 1982, but no more states passed the amendment. Support for the ERA had been on the platform of both major parties, but the Republican Party – at the behest of conservative presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s supporters – removed its pro-ERA plank in time for the 1980 national convention. The ERA has been re-introduced in Congress every session since 1982 but has failed to pass.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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