The Equal Rights Amendment – A 100 Year History

A Constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote has been a part of the American debate since the inception of our nation. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in 1776, imploring him to “remember the ladies” in the process of fomenting a new government. She writes “That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend”. Sojourner Truth, as ferocious an advocate of abolition as she was of women’s suffrage, spoke at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Calling upon her experiences as a woman of color, she fervidly cried “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him”. Though both women crusaded valiantly in support of women gaining the right to vote, neither lived long enough to see women’s suffrage triumph when the 19th amendment became a reality in 1920.

National Women’s Party (NWP) activists watch as Alice Paul, founder of the NWP, sews a star onto their ratification flag after another state had voted to ratify the 19th amendment.

In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, infamous American suffragette Alice Paul held a second national convention to begin campaigning for a new constitutional amendment, one that would guarantee the rights of women. It was then that she proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). With the right to vote already secured, the principal intent of the amendment was to further secure the legal rights of women and enshrine “the principle of gender equality in our founding charter”. The ERA sought to address internal pressures for women that had been serious considerations prior to the ratification of the amendment- prominently divorce, property retention, and employment. In cases of divorce, children and finances stayed with the husband leaving the wife with no realistic avenues for her own future security or that of her children; in the early 20th century it was exceedingly seldom that a single woman owned property in her own name without a male relative acting in a supervisory capacity. 

Illustration showing a wife’s dependence on her husband from The Vote, a publication of the Women’s Freedom League, 1911. 

While there had been laws that granted women the maintenance of property in the 19th century, they applied singularly to married women. Femme couverture, an English common law practice, insisted that upon the union of a man and a woman in marriage, the female’s existence was joined with that of her husband so that she had no independent legal existence. Thus, all property, both physical and intellectual, was transferred to the husband. The legal, political, and economic erasure of married women within their own affairs was convention through essentially the entire duration of America’s very young existence. The “Married Women’s Property Act of 1848” and the “Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife of 1860” originating in the state of New York were radical exceptions to this rule, as they permitted married women to retain property, conduct business on their own behalves, file lawsuits, and, in the case of the latter, acknowledged mothers as “joint guardians of their children”. Many other states soon followed this example and enacted their own laws warranting married women these prerogatives. 

Text reads “Women Voting in New Jersey Toward the Close of the Last Century”. New Jersey’s original state constitution granted single, property-owning females the right to vote. However, this right was revoked in 1807, when the state legislature restricted suffrage to only tax-paying, white males. 

Fortunately for Alice Paul, she would live to see the ERA be approved by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. Congress deemed an initial seven-year deadline for three-quarters of the states to ratify the proposed amendment and, within a year, thirty states had indeed ratified it. The following six years saw a plateauing of support for the ERA both within Congress and among the American people. In 1977 Congress voted to add another three years to the ratification deadline, but only led to another five states ratifying the amendment. Complications did not cease to arise (as in most matters of government) when five states – Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Kentucky – revoked their earlier support of the ERA. As Article V of the Constitution provides guidelines for states to ratify constitutional amendments but not rescind their ratification, the abrogations of these five states will most likely not be taken into consideration if the ERA ever is to become an amendment, as historical precedent suggests. 

Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the “STOP ERA”, demonstrating with others opposed to the ERA in front of the White House, 1977. “STOP” stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”.

Adrift in a sea of uncertainty after the extended deadline passed, supporters of the ERA felt that all hope of ever seeing a constitutional amendment aimed at securing the rights of women was lost. However, this conjecture was incorrect. It can be argued that the ERA, while conceived during a period of time where socially, the scales were tipped to favor men, by the 1980’s it was no longer necessary. With more women joining the workforce in the late 20th century, more opportunities were made available to them not only economically, but socially and legally as well. Husbands were no longer required as co-signers on homes or credit cards, and women enjoyed a greater, more purposeful sense of freedom. Important to note is the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. Termed one of the “Civil War amendments”, the 14th amendment was primarily a tool to establish formerly enslaved persons as natural citizens of the United States; this amendment does contain an equal protection clause, which reads, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. Thus, the 14th amendment combined with that of the 19th makes the ERA rather superfluous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself remarked at the Seneca Falls Convention that the granting of the right of women to be a part of the elective franchise will “secure all others”.

Where then, have the chips fallen? The ERA toils in partial obscurity, partial vindication within the hallowed halls of Congress. The 14th Amendment stands resolute despite being tossed around in petulant arguments on broadcast news stations. And women? What of them? 

From this author’s perspective, they linger dangerously close to undermining the successes of the dauntless women who came before them. It is an irrevocable aspect of womanhood to be self-assured – it was this shared trait that led to women gaining the right to vote in the first place. Presently in America, there appears to be a deep schism between women and the many perceived “truths” of womanhood; half the population falls on the side of radical feminism, declaring that matrimony, children, and homemaking are archaic anachronisms no longer satisfying enough for a more educated, expectant population of females. The remaining half admires all of the traits the former group abhors, and seeks to raise strong independently minded children who themselves will believe that the home is the backbone of a thriving American society. And yet this divide, where does it leave women? Certainly not united in our cause for equality. It is unfair to claim that even when the 19th amendment was still being crusaded for on American streets there were not a number of factions, each with differing agendas, vying for majority control. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) contested the successes of each other for years, eventually ending their bitter rivalry in 1890 when both groups decided that, for the sake of the cause, they should put their petty bickering aside and work together, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Renowned suffragettes (from left to right) Helen Hamilton Gardener, Maud Wood Park, and Carrie Chapman Catt on the balcony of Suffrage House, the Washington HQ of NAWSA, c. 1890s.

Looming ever closer is this reality where women are so disconnected there is no plausible chance for total equality. We must realize that the bonds of our shared womanhood are not so easily severed. Having differences of opinion is a necessary part of any society. While it may lead to othering – the feminist says the mother of four is wasting her life, the mother responds by saying the feminist’s lifestyle is frivolous and ridiculous – this is a waste of time. The farther the divide between women stretches, we will have made it so much easier for ourselves to be dominated once again (whether it be by men, aliens, or machines). Virginia Woolf articulated this best in her essay “A Room of One’s Own” when she wrote “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation”.

Suffrage cartoon from 1917 by famous cartoonist Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Shows a young woman revising the statement on the wall that claims women belong in the home. She holds a list of other spheres where women can be beneficial.

*Author’s Note* Most women in early America were married. If they were single, however, without ever having been married, the policy of femme sole was exercised. Another English common law practice, femme sole in the American colonies exercised on single women the same legal status as men (meaning they could be the head of their household, own a business, retain their property, and even pay taxes). However, femme sole did not grant women the right to vote, and thus the taxes they were obliged to pay were placed upon them without their consent. No taxation without representation, right? Femme sole did not apply to widows.

Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.


Cohen, Alex, and Wilfred U. Codrington III. “The Equal Rights Amendment Explained.” Brennan Center for Justice, October 9, 2019.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “A Brief History of Women’s Property Rights in the U.S.” ThoughtCo, July 13, 2019.

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