What Is the Equal Rights Amendment?

C. K. Lanz

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.

Virginia is one of the states that has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
Virginia is one of the states that has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.

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.

The Equal Rights Amendment has not yet become a part of the Constitution.
The Equal Rights Amendment has not yet become a part of the Constitution.

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.

The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to guarantee that women have the same rights as men.
The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to guarantee that women have the same rights as men.

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Discussion Comments


@JimmyT - I understand your point, but I believe they finally passed the Equal Rights Amendment simply due to the times that the law was eventually passed in.

This law was passed in the 1970's at the height of the feminist movement and after the Equal Rights Movement.

Women were getting paid drastically lower than men and this Equal Rights Amendment was finally put in place because the change had not been fully accepted yet and people were still treating women as inferior.

There were several other laws passed that favored women during this time such as the Title IX Act, which gave equality in regards to sports.

The Equal Rights Amendment was needed because women had not been fully accepted yet and the attitude towards women at this time, if one looks at the feminist movement, was very poor and additional legislation was needed to progress the change.


@matthewc23 - Even though people do discuss this I do not understand why it is so widely accepted that a societal change was needed and an additional law was needed to enforce this change.

Anytime there is a drastic change in the laws a society is going to have to adapt to it and it takes time. Look at the Reconstruction Amendments and how long it took the South to adapt to those changes.

Eventually the change would occur and women would be more widely accepted as equal, however it required time, not another law in place.

If this law was really necessary then why did it take over fifty years for it to be passed? Congress obviously thought that it was not necessary and they figured change would occur over time, which it did.


@kentuckycat - You are absolutely correct. All laws regarding equality coincide with the laws written in the Constitution and since it states that "all men are created equal" and does not talk about women this means that there was an interpretation of the Constitution that meant that women were inferior and exempt from the equality laws.

That is the reason for the Equal Rights Amendment. Even though laws were written to give equality for women customs of society could go against this law in such a way that the courts could not even enforce them.

It is one thing for laws to be passed but it is another for them to be enforced and accepted by society and that is why some people felt that there was a need for an additional law to be passed to make sure that protection was given and a societal change would occur.


Some people would say that there is no reason to have an Equal Rights Amendment because there is the 14th amendment that requires equal protection and the 19th amendment which gives women the right to vote. However what people do not realize is that even though women were granted the right to vote and it made women equal on paper in regards to the laws, society would still not accept women as equal so unwritten rules and customs would not be changed by the laws.

This is a concept among historians that is a source of much debate and is a hard argument for some to grasp, but it is a very sound and widely accepted argument.

In order for laws to work the way they were meant society had to accept the laws and when it came to equality of women the role of women had to change and a simple law giving them protection would not truly mean they were accepted as equal by society.


@surfNturf - You seem to be making two contradictor arguments. You say that on the one hand, the ERA would be redundant because the 14th amendment does the same job.

Then you say that the should the Equal Rights Amendment be ratified, it would cause problems by possibly requiring that women be drafted for military service.

If the 14th Amendment does everything that the ERA would do, shouldn't it also require that women register for Selective Service? There's an argument to be made that drafting only men, should that be necessary, discriminates against men by depriving them of their liberty and sometimes their lives while women are not subjected to the same risk.


I don’t see the need for an equal rights amendment. The 14th amendment protects equal rights so there really is no need for this amendment.

I also think that although we have a voluntary military if an amendment like this would pass it would mean our daughters would have to sign up with selective service at the age of eighteen just like the men at the age do.

Also if there is a draft instituted women would also be eligible for the draft. I really am glad this amendment didn’t go anywhere because the aspect of military service makes me uncomfortable.

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