Who has Been Left Out of the History of the Equal Rights Amendment Battle? MenRoundup
tags: conservatism, Equal Rights Amendment
Rebecca DeWolf is a historian with a PhD in American history from American University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963 to be published by The University of Nebraska Press in Fall 2021.
For the first time in decades, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has new life. In recent years, supporters have gathered the three additional state ratifications the amendment theoretically needed for incorporation into the Constitution. In March, the House passed a measure that would set aside the 1982 deadline for ratification. That measure is currently sitting in the Senate where Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recently commented that he believes it might be possible to get enough Republican support to secure passage. Of course, enshrining the ERA in the Constitution also will require the Supreme Court to allow Congress to waive the deadline after the fact.
Yet, as hope for the ERA grows, it is crucial that we get the history right, notably the role that men have played in influencing the ERA’s trajectory. Popular depictions of the ERA battle — notably those in the recent TV miniseries “Mrs. America” — portray it as a debate among women over different conceptions of womanhood or motherhood. But at the core, it has been a fight over how best to ensure sexual equity and whether sex should play a role in determining a citizen’s rights — something far easier to see when men get reinserted into the story.
In fact, men have always been significantly involved on both sides of the ERA conflict. This is most evident in the earliest years of the struggle — long before Phyllis Schlafly and her fellow conservative women entered the state ratification battles of 1970s and early 1980s and stopped the ERA in its tracks.
Take, for example, the key role of legal scholar Albert Levitt, who helped Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and the main author of the ERA, craft the very first version of the amendment in 1921. Although Levitt eventually disagreed with Paul over the language of the ERA introduced in Congress in 1923, he did help to push Paul toward the idea of pursuing a constitutional amendment to ensure women’s status as full citizens.
Then there was Rep. Louis Ludlow (D-Ind.). In the 1930s, Ludlow helped the NWP revamp its strategy to persuade more members of Congress to back the amendment. Rather than pushing for public hearings on the proposal, they focused on holding small, private meetings with key members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Private meetings avoided the public attention that came from large and prolonged congressional hearings, which Ludlow and the NWP leaders realized gave ERA critics a platform to launch a counterattack. Thanks to the persistent efforts of the NWP and the steadfast advocacy of the ERA from Ludlow, the amendment began to steadily build support in Congress with subcommittees reporting it favorably almost every year between 1936 and 1948.
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