What was/is the point of the ERA?

In another GD thread about the nature of freedom in America, the topic of the Equal Rights Amendment came up, and not wanting to hijack that threat i’ve decided to launch this one. The ERA reads as follows:

Being of the younger generation of American voters, the Equal Rights Amendment came and left the public consciousness before my time, and I have to say I can’t see what the point was of this amendment in the first place. Isn’t it ALREADY the law of the land, via the 1st and 14th amendments and Title IX, that gender discrimination is right out? What effect specifically would adding this to the Constitution have had on the state of gender relations in America?

There are a number of laws and regulations that treat the sexes differently.

The miltary draft affects only men.
Work rules required women’s restrooms to be provided with a place for the women to “recover” from situations arising from their menses while no such rules were in place for men.
There were, in the 1970s, at least, still laws that treated men and women differently in regards to marital obligations and rights.

That amendment was intended to remove all the discrepancies and both the supporters and the opponents pointed to many of the same phenomena as things that would be removed when they argued over whether it was the only thing holding this country back from being a true representative democracy or it was the final act to send us into a cataclysmic decline.

There were not only a mess of laws, but also a wide assortment of social customs, that basically stood as barriers to women, from the early 1900s on well into the 1960s. Women seeking to become lawyers or doctors faced sexist discrimination. In a portion of his last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, that was loosely based on his own mother’s real life, Robert Heinlein noted in passing that before WWI a married woman could only own property in her own name with her husband’s written consent. Promotions regularly went to men instead of better-qualified and more-experienced women, the “glass ceiling” effect. The last 50 years have seen a dramatic shift in a wide variety of social customs, but none more obvious than the treatment of women.

All of which we achieved without the ERA, so what difference would it have made?

I always thought the ERA was more an “arguing point” than anything else, a segue into “Yeah, but that’s illegal” kind of thing, to respond to those who would say “Women are traditionally blah blah blah.”

“No, women are exactly equivalant to men in the law’s eyes.”

“But women don’t do XYZ, and ABC, and yadda yadda yadda…”

“Yeah, but that’s illegal. See the ERA. Is that clear enough for you? Okay, now that we have that principle settled, let’s get back to our discussion.”

It was never intended to have specific practical effects, I think, as much it just helps to frame practical discussions.

Because it would enshrine equality of sexes right there in the constitution.

If there was a new wave of sexism, Title IX could be overturned by simple congressional action, the 14th amendment could be narrowly construed to allow discrimination on some excuse or another (as it already is, see the draft), and the laws could revert back to the 1950’s mode. If the ERA were passed, that would become much more difficult, as it would mean amending the constitution.

But it’s mostly a matter of principle. ERA supporters believed that equality of the sexes was an important enough concept, like freedom of speech or religion, that it should be explictly spelled out in the highest law of the land, even if lesser laws could impart most of the practical benefits.

True dat. But 35 years ago, there was no guarantee that that would happen. It made sense then to change the Constitution and guarantee in one fell swoop all the myriad legal changes that made the difference between second-class citizenship and equality.

At the beginning of the Reagan Administration, when the ERA was still (maybe/maybe not) in play, that Administration took the position that it was against the ERA, but for removing all legal obstacles to women’s equality. (I think this was about how to keep Reagan Dems and Phyllis Schlafly’s legions happy at the same time.) IIRC, the office in the Administration in charge of figuring out exactly what that meant, found hundreds of such laws and regulations.

And it’s only been a few years since the last two all-male, state-supported colleges in the United States (VMI and The Citadel, neither of which had a complementary institution for women) went coed.

How would the FIRST amendment protect against sex discrimination?

The ERA wasn’t just about women’s rights. It was about gender discrimination. These issues are so common that we often don’t notice them until we are victimized by them.

If you are a divorced man who has tried to get physical custody of his children, you may have found that the courts are biased in favor of the female parent, for example.

Gender bias shows up in sports all the time. There’s “World Cup Soccer” and then there’s “Women’s World Cup Soccer.” If you are going to have separate teams (which I can understand because of the physical differences), then why not designate the male team as “Men’s World Cup Soccer”? Are the women less “real”?

Why has Michigan recently banned male cheerleaders?

When a child is sick at school, which parent is called? Why?

Married men, do you help your wife with the housework? Are you sure? Why do you think of it as “help”? Why isn’t it your job as much as hers?

Think about the secretaries who work at your place of employment. What percentage are male? What percentage of public school teachers are female? What percentage of school administrators are female?

Who cooked Sunday dinner at your house? Who cleaned up afterwards?

These questions may reflect poorly on my generation more than on Gen X. I hope so! As college students in the early 1960’s, we were locked in the dorm at 8:00 every night unless we were signed out to the library. The men were allowed to roam freely. We could not wear slacks or jeans on campus unless we were on our way to play tennis – and then we had to wear raincoats over them. Women’s basketball was half-court because women were too delicate to run the full length of the court.

The sad thing is that much of this we just accepted as the way things are.. We didn’t question the fairness of it.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s? (They were two separate laws, weren’t they? I was so young back then, I don’t remember.)

I think most legal scholars even 30 years ago opined that a combination of the 14th and 19th amendments together did everything ERA was supposed to do. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to “(a)ll persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and further granted to all citizens equal protection under the law. It would have taken a very liberal interpretation of that in 1868 to say it made women equal with men under the law, but by 1970 it could easily be seen as such. The only failing of the 14th was that it didn’t include women among voters, a glaring error finally corrected by the 19th Amendment.

One difference between ERA and other equality-granting legislation/amendments is that, while women were probably oppressed, they weren’t a minority. You simply cannot deny pay raises and promotions to half of society when that half decides it isn’t right. I honestly believe that the only thing keeping women from realizing full equality is the vestige of romantic notions – among women – about women needing to be protected from the big bad world. Well, that and Phyllis Schlafly.

Yes and no. The 14th amendment is and always has been construed to grant civil rights to Black people. That’s why it was passed, to do away with the Dred Scott decision making blacks non-citizens. The later laws were just the nation finally taking it seriously, and passing the legislation necessary to enforce it.

The 14th amendment has not always been interpretted to include women (as you point out, it took the 19th amendment to give women the vote). It’s still not as strong regarding gender equality as the ERA would be, women still cannot be drafted, for example.

Zoe, I tend to agree with your post in general, but this bit is off the mark:

Women are inferior at most sports, so generally they have their own lesser leagues. The World Cup crowns the best team in the world; the Women’s World Cup winner would have trouble beating a decent men’s team, much less a World Cup winner.

The reason you don’t see leagues qualify themselves as “men’s” is because they are defined as the best of the best. Often, women are allowed to join. (Think of the PGA.) But women are inferior competitors at most sports, so those sports have two major leagues: The Best and the much lesser Women’s Only. For sports where the human isn’t doing most of the work, like car racing, there is no segregation based on gender; everybody competes in the same events.

So the reason it’s not called the “Men’s World Cup” is that there is no need for any qualifier. The “Women’s World Cup,” OTOH, is qualified because it is in fact lesser. Not less “real;” less “good.”

'Cause it’s gay!

From reading this thread, I have to say that the answer has to be “there was no point to the ERA.” The ERA wouldn’t do anything to get rid of institutional biases, which seems to be the problems most people who say the 14th wasn’t enough are complaining about. In the legal sense, the areas where the 14th wasn’t enough have already been rectified by subsequent legislation or amendments.

But as far as more women being teachers than men, or more men being school administrators or “glass ceilings” or etc, an amendment to the constitution that says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Still doesn’t really have any more power than existing law at getting rid of institutional biases in non-government entities.

But the ERA wasn’t about many of the examples you give.

Would be affected by the ERA.

Would not be affected by the ERA.

Aould be affected.

Not affected.

Not affected.

Probably not affected.

Not affected.


We have to look at this in perspective: History has shown that when women, as a group, decide they really, really want something (politically), they will get it sooner or later. It might take a long time, but they’ll get it. After all, they control half of the votes and all of the [cough] [ahem]. But it rarely happens because women, like men, come from every class, regional and cultural background, and, like men, are all over the map in their world-views, and, like men, are rarely all of one mind (politically). The only time you can count on most of them to agree is on things relating directly to women’s rights and interests (and even there you’ll find divisions). Which is why there’s been so many enormous improvements in that field ever since the 19th Amendment passed and politicians starting having to worry about the women’s vote. Heck, they even managed to get the 19th Amednment, which looked impossible when the suffrage movement started because they could only succeed by selling the idea to male politicians answerable only to male voters.