Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Here is a short piece I wrote for the American Bar Association's public education online magazine:
Tracy Thomas, From the 19th Amendment to ERA: Constitutional Amendments for Women's Equality, ABA Insights (Nov. 2019)
The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women’s right to vote was passed by Congress one hundred years ago on June 4, 1919. Many[JD1] states quickly ratified the amendment, though it would be a close call when the final state, Tennessee, pushed the amendment into law in August 2020. When first proposed, the vote or “suffrage” was just one of many civil and social rights demanded by women. But it became the primary focus of the women’s rights movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fueled by political allegiances with conservative temperance women and supported by focus on the vote as the primary right of citizenship as embodied in the new Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
One year after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women’s rights leaders resurrected the demands for gender equality in aspects of society by proposing the first Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1921. The ERA would have guaranteed that civil and legal rights cannot be denied “on the basis of sex.” From the beginning, however, the ERA was met with opposition including from women themselves, with conservative women concerned about impact on the family and progressive women concerned about impact on labor and union rights. It would take another fifty years before both national political parties would endorse the ERA, and Congress passed the ERA in 1972 guaranteeing that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The necessary two-thirds of the states, however, failed to ratify the ERA, even after an extension of the deadline.
A modern movement has renewed efforts to pass the ERA, still believing in the necessity of a constitutional guarantee of the broad legal and social equality of women first advanced 171 years ago. This essay traces the history of the women’s constitutional demands for equality, from its origins in Seneca Falls, the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, the proposed ERA, and modern efforts for a new amendment to secure gender equality.