In August 1920, the movement for women’s equality in the United States won a massive victory with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Following the passage of the amendment, in 1921, Alice Paul, a prominent leader of the suffrage movement, and Crystal Eastman, a lawyer and socialist, began drafting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). They presented it to Congress in 1923. Far more sweeping than the 19th Amendment, the ERA was intended to outlaw gender discrimination; it provided that “[m]en and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and all its jurisdictions.”
Despite early bipartisan support for the amendment, it languished in Congressional committees for over 30 years. However, with the rise of the modern women's movements in the United States in the 1960s and 70s, enthusiasm for the Equal Rights Amendment swelled.
The Equal Rights Amendment also garnered increasing support from a new class of federal lawmakers, including Representatives Martha Griffiths (D-MI) and Shirley Chisholm (D-NY). Griffiths was the first woman to serve on the influential House Committee on Ways and Means, while Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress. Representative Griffiths reintroduced the ERA to Congress in 1971 and it was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives on October 12, 1971, and by the Senate on March 22, 1972.
Congress set a ratification deadline of March 22, 1979, which was later extended to June 30, 1982. Within a year of approval by Congress, 30 states had ratified the amendment, and by 1977, the amendment had received 35 of the necessary 38 ratifications.
However, the rise of a well-organized conservative movement in the United States would make securing ratifications from three more states for passage of the ERA far more difficult than organizers anticipated. The biggest threat to ratification came from Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime Republican activist who allied with the emerging religious right and set out to stop the Equal Rights Amendment from becoming part of the Constitution. In the 1970s, Schlafly organized the STOP ERA campaign, which stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” The anti-ERA campaign was well organized and successful in bringing many women to the cause, portraying its supporters as people who “hate men, marriage, and children,” who will “destroy morality and the family.”
This exhibition explores this complicated history through archival material, photographs, and ephemera produced by activists from both sides to shed light on why ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment failed and how that fight impacts our lives today.
This exhibition is curated by Cara Dellatte, reference archivist in the Manuscripts and Rare Book Division, and Ian Fowler, Curator of Maps, History, and Government Information, at The New York Public Library.