Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Working Mothers and the Postponement of Women's Rights from the Nineteenth Amendment to the Equal Rights Amendment
The Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1920 spawned new initiatives to advance the status of women, including the proposal of another constitutional amendment that would guarantee women equality in all legal rights, beyond the right to vote. Both the Nineteenth Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) grew out of the long quest to enshrine women’s equal status under the law as citizens, which began in the nineteenth century. Nearly a century later, the ERA remains unfinished business with an uncertain future. Suffragists advanced different visions and strategies for women’s empowerment after they got the constitutional right to vote. They divided over the ERA. Their disagreements, this Essay argues, productively postponed the ERA, and reshaped its meaning over time to be more responsive to the challenges women faced in exercising economic and political power because they were mothers. An understanding of how and why the amendment stalled speaks directly to the current controversy in Congress and the courts about whether a congressional time limit should stop the ERA from achieving full constitutional status. Such an understanding recognizes that suffragists disagreed in the immediate aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification over the ERA, and that these divisions undermined the ERA’s prospects for at least a few decades. Ultimately, however, the ERA that earned congressional adoption and 38 ratifications over almost a century was stronger because of this postponement.