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10 Things You Might Not Know About The Equal Rights Amendment

ERA supporters wore shirts and brought signs to the Womens March in Springfield earlier this year
Rachel Otwell
ERA supporters wore shirts and brought signs to the Womens March in Springfield earlier this year

The Equal Rights Amendment, commonly referred to as the ERA, aims to end the legal distinction between men and women, something supporters say would enhance equality when it comes to issues like equal pay. Congress approved it in 1972, and then it went to the states for ratification. 38 states had to approve it by 1982, a deadline set by Congress. It fell short by three.

The language is simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Many people think this language is already included in the U.S. Constitution. But it isn’t, and advocates are still working to change that. An ERA/Equal Pay "lobby day" is planned for this coming Tuesday.Rachel Otwell spoke with Mary Hansen about the ERA

Here are 10 other things you might not know about the ERA, particularly for Illinois, which has not yet ratified it:

1. Illinois is part of a “three-state strategy” ERA supporters are pursuing in hopes of it achieving ratification.

Since 1994, the effort has been to get the amendment ratified in three more states to meet the minimum 38 states for it to become part of the Constitution.

Nevada voted for ratification in 2017, so according to the plan only two more states are needed. Because the 1982 deadline passed, it's unclear what congressional or legal action could result if that does happen. Today, efforts are heavily focused in Illinois.

2. A bill currently in play would have the state ratify it.

Resolutions for its ratification have come close to reaching enough support at the Illinois statehouse.  In 2014, the Illinois Senate passed a resolution for ratification, but it failed to get through the House. Democratic State Sen. Heather Steans from Chicago last year introduced  SJRCA 4, another resolution proposing ERA ratification. It got out of committee, but then stalled.

“There’s definitely a growing effort now to focus on trying to get it passed,” she said. Steans said she believes there are enough votes in the Senate, but she’s not sure about the House. “To get a super-majority in the House we’re going to have to have some Republican support. For some reason, this has become a partisan issue. I’m working to try and stop that,” she said.

3. Illinois has long been a battleground for the ERA.

While many figured it a sure bet back in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly was successful in lobbying against it with her “STOP ERA” campaign. She focused much of her work in Illinois where she lived. While Schlafly promoted the importance of women in the home, she herself was a lawyer who had unsuccessfully run for Congress. She proved to be a skilled and savvy conservative strategist and thinker, an example and crusader of the shift in the GOP party to its honing in on social issues like abortion, LGBTQ-rights and “family values.”

Schlafly, an Alton resident who was born in St. Louis, founded the Eagle Forum, a nonprofit claiming to “lead the pro-family movement.” One of her main critiques of the ERA is that it would force women to be included in a military draft. 

4. Illinois already has this language in its own constitution.

Protections and entitlements for women, like The Equal Pay Act and Title IX, have been passed federally, and some argue the ERA would be redundant. Illinois is one of the states that already has language in its own constitution similar to the ERA.

5. The Equal Rights Amendment was first drafted in 1923.

One of its authors was Alice Paul, who had helped suffragists develop more extreme actions in their fight for the right to vote. Paul saw the amendment as a necessary next step after women achieved the right to vote. She continued to lobby for its passage until her death in 1977.

6. The ERA has been a contentious topic among feminists.

In the early days, the ERA was contested by feminists who were divided on whether such language in the U.S. Constitution was necessary. In particular, those representing female laborers argued it might take away some work protections.

By the 1960s, the second wave of feminism was ushered in, and with it came more support for the idea. Still, not all supporters agreed on the best ways to lobby for it - with groups like The League of Women Voters favoring more traditional methods, while more extreme activists took part in direct actions.

7. There was blood spilled in Illinois over the ERA.

The Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, founded by Champaign-Urbana resident Mary Lee Sargent, carried out the numerous direct actions in support of the ERA. One involved writing the name of an opposing legislator, Republican George Ryan, who would later become governor, on the capitol floor in pig blood.

Acquiring that blood involved falsely convincing a slaughterhouse it would be used for a Shakespeare production.The ERA battle hit a boiling point on the last day of spring session in 1982. Protesters who called themselves the “chain gang” tied themselves together in the statehouse. On that final day of session they interrupted proceedings and held a sit-in in the House chambers.  

8. The proposal had bipartisan support at the time it passed through Congress.

President Richard Nixon, who was in office at the time, supported the measure. In Illinois, the original chief sponsor of the legislation for ratification was another Republican, Rep. Susan Catania from Chicago.

Laurie Higgins is with the Illinois Family Institute,which has always opposed the idea. She argues women, "are not institutionally deprived of any right, and this ERA has nothing to do specifically with women." Higgins says she's worried that passage would mean men and women would be forced to share public spaces, like locker rooms and bathrooms.

9. A national rally was held in Chicago in 1980 and estimates say over 50,000 people attended.

It included feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, a Peoria native. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne spoke out as well - noting that as a voting block women had political power and it was time for lawmakers to listen to pleas for the ERA’s state approval.

Byrne claimed Illinois had fallen out of political favor on a national scale because of its failure to ratify, saying it had lost a chance to host the Democratic National Convention.

10. NOW – the National Organization of Women – has made passage of the ERA a top priority.

Friedan was the organization’s original leader. Her title The Feminine Mystique is considered a key propellant of the second wave of feminism. Terry O’Neill more recently headed NOW, based in Washington, D.C.

Third wave feminismbegan in the 1990s; many scholars of the subject say it’s the one we’re still in. With it came increased attention on issues facing queer women and women of color, and the problems facing society when it comes to racism and discrimination based on one’s gender identity and/or sexual expression.

O’Neill stresses the importance of an intersectional approach to feminism, and said the ERA is a key factor of that cause. She said it would help women, particularly women of color, better pursue justice in cases of discrimination.

She said the current political atmosphere has made the issue of ratification urgent. “There really is more of a need for the ERA today than there ever has been. Frankly, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, we are facing now some truly dire threats to women’s economic security and to their access to health care,” she said.

This list was compiled in part based on an Illinois Issues story published last year. You can read it, here.

A previous version of this story said Terry O'Neill still heads NOW. Toni Van Pelt became the organization's president in July 2017. 

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Rachel's reports currently focus on education and equity. She's also reported extensively on arts, community & diverse culture.