Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. —Section 1, Equal Rights Amendment
George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” sounds great. And if you do happen to forget the past, all you have to do is crack a few books and wisdom will return. But what if the historians and the popular writers don’t include all of history? What if you and a whole group of people nationwide participated in what were ground-breaking actions and they were totally ignored, forgotten, not even mentioned? Recently, while reading a fairly liberal magazine, I had an “aha!” moment in this regard, a moment that made the anger race in my veins again. The magazine had a timeline of history listing important events such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the struggle for women’s right to choose, but not one mention of the Equal Rights Amendment or any of the many gallant women and a handful of men who worked so diligently to get it passed. Not one word about the women who chained themselves to the gates of a Mormon temple in Bellevue, Washington, who climbed fences, picketed the White House, sat in at federal buildings. Not one name. Not one action. Not one speech. Not one blasted word.
Does this mean the sacrifices, the courage, the foresight, and the time we put into working for the ERA was negligible? Because it wasn’t passed, does it mean that we failed? No, it means that keeping women in lesser positions economically, socially, and politically benefits the ruling hierarchy. It is a power struggle that has continued for centuries. Most people don’t even realize it exists. They buy into the role-playing that society foists upon us. Today’s woman is to be sexy while maintaining a public façade that says, “I’m not a slut.” Today’s woman is capable and independent, asking for raises and decent working conditions. She pays her own way, lets men know she likes them, and decides whether to marry or not. However she must be careful not to go too far. I could go on with instances, but you get the picture. Hypocrisy reigns.
Naomi Wolf’s recent Washington Post article, “Who Won Feminism?” (a provocative title that wasn’t Wolf’s own), throws up a straw woman in the form of Helen Gurley Brown, who is also the subject of a new biography titled, Bad Girls Go Everywhere. Brown’s style of feminism came out of the sexual revolution, not the second wave of the women’s movement. While most feminists accepted equality of sexual rights, Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, advocated actions that perpetuated the sexual objectification of women. Although she occasionally paid lip service to equal pay and other bottom-line issues, the main thrust of her Cosmopolitan magazine was: how to be sexually attractive to men and how to manipulate them. Feminists today rightly identify her tactics as walking hand-in-glove with Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Women are still told to dress a certain way, make their faces a certain way, be skinny, look victimized. Abetted by the media and a political party that lauded the anti-feminist tactics of the Phyllis Schlafly’s of the country, women, while given a few stipends, got no true equality in the 1970s and ’80s.
Instead, the gallant women, who in the last months of the ERA ratification process in 1982 fasted on the steps of the Illinois statehouse, were castigated, laughed at, and mostly ignored by the rest of the country. The media, who had written stories about civil rights leaders’ hunger strikes and who routinely lauded Gandhi for his nonconfrontational civil disobedience during India’s fight for independence, should have done the same for women. They didn’t.
After the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated, the war against equality of rights grew as the very underpinnings of equality were attacked. Dirt and mud were attached to the word “feminist.” Anti-feminist writers and speakers like Rush Limbaugh, who coined the term “feminazi,” were given forums and were often fawned upon. Even men who were ostensibly on our side—liberal, educated leaders—cast doubt upon our efforts, saying we had not helped all women.
Why speak and write in this fashion? Many reasons, but tradition is a big one. Women have been looked upon as the lesser sex ever since men figured out they were physically stronger and that baby-making required a woman’s participation. Being in control of reproduction is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there were many more men in the reproductive rights struggle (and we ERA feminists were involved in it, too) than in the fight for women’s equality. Keeping women down undoubtedly motivated the male adherents in the anti-choice crowd. They made motherhood and the unborn a sacrament and co-opted the leadership of the movement.
The English language also helped keep women in a subservient position. “Mankind” and “man” were terms that supposedly included us. And while the marital status of men was hidden under the honorific “Mister,” women were “Miss” if single and “Mrs.” if married, at which point their full names became hidden in lists of Mr. and Mrs. John Smith (including the membership lists of the American Humanist Association). In such subtle ways women were kept in their place; “it’s a man’s world,” was a phrase heard often. When former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, fresh out of law school, applied for a position, she was asked if she could type.
Women in the freethought community knew we needed the ERA when churches blatantly fought against it, using their power, their privilege, and their untaxed dollars.
I picketed my first church in the late 1970s to the consternation of the priests and sisters, but certainly not all religious women were against the ERA. Some in positions of responsibility spoke out for the necessity of change. Sister Maureen Fiedler (who now hosts the radio program Interfaith Voices) was a staunch supporter, as were other clergy women. None of their names appeared in the timeline mentioned earlier. But that magazine is hardly different from others or even some books, such as The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America by Ruth Rosen. Published in 2000, this richly detailed book nevertheless ignored those who moved outside the accepted ways of protest.
Along with others we marched, picketed, wrote letters and articles, talked to groups, and held rallies. But we also committed acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to our cause. Some of us went to jail or were cited. Some of us testified in court. Some of us appeared before Congress. Sonia Johnson, the AHA’s first Humanist Heroine, was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for her support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Recognizing the link between religion, politics, and women, she gave a harshly critical speech at the 1979 meeting of the American Psychological Association titled, “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church,” and the year prior she’d raised the ire of ERA opponent Orin Hatch (R-UT) while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights. All of this happened nationally but is almost forgotten today, as is Sonia Johnson’s book, From Housewife to Heretic. Rosen never even mentioned it.
Today determination, necessity (the economy needs our labor), and a scattering of laws give the illusion that women and men walk a level playing field. Wrong. At any time any of those laws can be overturned. Through the years various groups have attempted just that. Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank of the conservative Concerned Women for America, said President Obama’s recent actions on women’s issues would create worldwide abortion on demand and quotas for male-female representation in all levels of government. Apparently she was referring to his lifting of the “global gag rule,” which is no longer keeping female reproduction aids and federal money from women overseas, to the FDA’s extension of Plan B (the morning-after pill) to include seventeen-year-old women, and to the recent Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act doing away with wage discrimination that banned women from filing claims after 180 days.
All these actions supported by the president brought praise from feminists. The National Organization for Women, the leading women’s advocate group in the nation, applauded verbally and in print. Eleanor Smeal, the AHA’s 2008 Humanist Heroine, said giant strides for women were made in Obama’s first 100 days. But is it enough? Bonnie Erb, in her Thomas Jefferson Street blog, points out that although the president announced a White House Council on Women and Girls, because it doesn’t have cabinet rank it may mean more talk than action.
Until women are protected in the Constitution, we have no guarantees of any kind. One of the sayings repeated during our struggle for the ERA was: “if Lincoln had emancipated one plantation at a time, we’d still have slavery.” Women’s salaries still lag behind men’s; women still bump into a glass ceiling. Female athletes seldom have the backing or following that men do. Women in politics are constantly scrutinized and criticized for being “too soft” or “too tough.” Their appearance, their wardrobe, and their voices are still criticized, while men in politics rarely face such judgments.
The changes we have seen have been incremental. In 1963 women overall were making 59 cents for every dollar a man made. Today it’s risen to 78 cents, but is that really an achievement? It comes out to a half-cent per year. In the National NOW Times, economist and WAGE Project President Evelyn Murphy calculated that a woman with a high school education would be denied $700,000 during her lifetime. A college-educated woman would earn one to two million dollars less than her male counterpart if the same trends continue. In many ways, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.
While most liberal women today call themselves feminists, it’s a feminism that doesn’t rock boats. Where is the outcry concerning the religious right and other conservatives claiming that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would guarantee (horrors) gay marriage? Even though it’s progressing in fits and starts, the national trend is definitely moving away from vilification of same-sex marriage, and women shouldn’t let this issue cloud their view on the ERA. (Incidentally, while the gay rights movement and the women’s movement were separate entities during the 1970s and early ’80s, it was amusing to heterosexual feminists to be called dykes.)
The question is, have we now reverted to another standard, another role for women—that is, to be “modern” while not being militant? It seems it’s okay to work for a crisis center or a women’s shelter, institute women’s studies in colleges, and speak out for gender equality, but we must do it all in refined ways. No outspoken demands, no agitation for change, no questioning of hard topics, no unladylike actions. But really, we need to ask why we’re building battered women’s shelters while seldomly addressing the bottom line—which is that men batter, beat, and murder their spouses and girlfriends. We need to stop women from self-censoring. We need to stop men from abusive behavior.
It’s a sad day to realize that women’s history is incomplete and many times completely hidden. Just as the seventy-two years women worked to achieve the vote was hidden, now the complete story about the Equal Rights Amendment has been buried and seldom mentioned. Some younger people don’t even know an ERA exists. (It was approved by the U.S. Senate in 1972, with a seven-year deadline for ratification by the required three-quarters of the states. It’s been reintroduced every term since 1982 without success and was reintroduced in 2007 as the “Women’s Equality Amendment,” which retained the original language of the ERA but removed the deadline for ratification.) But speaking out does bear fruit. Witness the up-tick in membership in nontheistic organizations since Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others spoke and wrote about their views on religion. Witness the numbers of people who are now claiming no religion in polls. Witness the unrelenting work by activists in keeping the Equal Rights Amendment alive.
Alice Paul wrote the original Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Paul was the feminist who stepped outside the normal route of protest to picket the White House for the vote during the Woodrow Wilson administration. The women who participated were eventually arrested and jailed (during a march on the nation’s capital) and treated brutally. We who stepped outside accepted forms of protest to commit nonviolent civil disobedience in 1980 and ’81 were following in Alice Paul’s footsteps. We were also speaking out at a time when the ideology of Ronald Reagan was erupting upon the American political scene. While Paul’s tactics eventually helped pass the nineteenth amendment, the ERA was defeated by conservative men wielding power, privilege, and religion over an ill-informed public. We must educate. We must keep up the pressure. Women’s equality means equality for all.