The Equal Rights Amendment, also commonly referred to simply as the ERA, is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee that women be afforded identical rights to men in the workplace and in society as a whole. It was first proposed in 1923 as a follow-on to the 19th Amendment. That amendment, which was ratified in 1920, guaranteed women the right to vote but didn’t afford any other rights. Supporters at that time felt that more protections were needed to secure women an equal place in American society. The ERA received a very strong response initially, but didn’t get enough support to reach full ratification. It was reintroduced in the 1970s and again started strongly, but fell flat once more when not enough states signed on. It’s been reintroduced to Congress every year since 1982, and 35 states have incorporated it into their own laws. It is not yet federal law, however.
Understanding the Constitutional Amendment Process
In the United States, the Constitution is a document that sets out the laws, rights, and privileges of citizens. It was written in 1787 with seven “articles,” or main provisions; since then it’s been amended, or added to, more than twenty times. Each amendment is typically numbered and, once adopted by the states, becomes law.
Amending the Constitution isn’t an easy process. Lawmakers, typically members of Congress, start by drafting a proposal or formally supporting a proposal, usually from one of their constituents. That proposal first has to win the support of a majority of the members of the House of Representatives, and then it is sent for a vote in the Senate. From there, it’s up to each individual state to incorporate the provisions into its own state-specific laws. State adoption is where many amendments run into trouble, even if they’ve passed every other hurdle. In order for an amendment to be ratified and made national law, 38 of the 50 states must affirmatively implement it. In the case of the Equal Rights Amendment, only 35 states have taken on its provisions, which means it is not an official part of U.S. law.
Early History and Drafting
The ERA was written in 1921 by suffragist Alice Paul, and introduced formally in Congress in 1923. Historians say that Paul and her supporters drafted the amendment as a reaction to the ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which secured a woman’s right to vote. Paul believed that an additional amendment was necessary to protect women from all forms of sex-based discrimination under federal law. Although the 14th Amendment grants all citizens equal protection, it is rarely applied to sex discrimination cases by the courts.
The ERA was introduced in every session of Congress beginning in 1923 until it was passed by both houses in 1972. It did not then, nor has it now, received enough support in the states to become binding law, however.
Once the ERA was passed by Congress, the process of ratification by state legislatures began. Many states moved rapidly to ratify the amendment but the pace of ratification slowed after 1973. By 1979, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota had rescinded their initial adoption of the proposal’s provisions. Ultimately, supporters of the amendment failed to secure ratification in the necessary 38 states by the 1982 deadline. It remains possible for Congress to repeal or adjust the ERA’s deadline and declare the existing state ratifications valid.
Opposition and Continued Controversy
Ratification of the ERA has been opposed by a number of different groups over the years. New Dealers argued that women did require additional legal protections that the ERA would nullify, for instance, and many labor unions did not want to lose the workplace regulations that preserved employment for women. In 1983, various members of Congress demanded that the ERA be re-written to include abortion-neutral language so that the amendment could not be used to grant or deny abortion rights and funding.
Although the ERA has not yet become federal law, many states provide partial or full protection against sex-based discrimination in state constitutions. Some states like Wyoming entered the Union in the late 19th century with constitutions that included equal protection for male and female residents. Other states like California limit equal rights protection to education and employment. Various states with equal rights amendments in their constitutions such as Florida and Virginia have yet to ratify the exact language of the Equal Rights Amendment.