A Brief History

Section 1: 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 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3: This Amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The ERA, authored by prominent suffragist and National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul, was first introduced in Congress in 1923 and then again in every Congressional session until it passed first the Senate and then the House on March 22, 1972.

Like every proposed constitutional amendment, after it passed by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, the ERA was sent to the states for ratification. Congress, however, had imposed—in the preamble of the resolution—a seven-year timeline on the ratification process.  The timeline was not in the ERA itself and the states did not vote on it.

Three-fourths, or 38, of the states must ratify an amendment before it can become part of the U.S. Constitution. Hawaii was the first state to ratify, less than an hour after the ERA passed out of Congress. Other states quickly followed. By January 1977, 35 states had ratified the amendment.

With the seven-year deadline approaching, however, women’s rights activists took to the streets to demand removal of the timeline, led by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its then President, Eleanor Smeal, co-founder and current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.  As over 100,000 people marched to remove the timeline down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, over 400,000 people sent telegrams to Congress demanding the same with the slogan “No time limit on Equality.”  So many telegrams were delivered at the same time that it crashed the system shutting down Western Union, the largest provider of telegrams in the country at the time. In the fall of 1978, Congress granted an extension of the deadline until June 30, 1982.

The campaign for the final three states was intense.  The Equal Rights Amendment had massive support even in un-ratified states.  In Illinois, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia in state public opinion polls support for the ERA was especially strong with substantial majorities and even higher in national polls.  Hundreds of groups supported passage including NOW, National Women’s Political Caucus, the League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women,  National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, YWCA,  National Bar Association, many civil rights groups including the NAACP and National Congress of Black Women, religious groups,  labor unions especially those representing large percentages of women workers, National Coalition of Labor Union Women, National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Nurses Associations and many civil rights groups.  The ERA had major Democratic leadership supporters, including President Jimmy Carter, Republican support, as well as celebrity supporters.  Former First Lady Betty Ford and television celebrity Alan Alda were the co-chairs of the ERA Countdown Campaign and Maureen Reagan, daughter of President Reagan, toured for the ERA campaign.  In total, over 450 organizations with memberships of more than 50 million people directly participated in the national and state campaigns.

The opposition to the ERA was also organized, especially in the South, led by Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and many insurance companies as well as major corporations worked carefully behind the scene.  President Reagan became the first Republican president to oppose the ERA.  He said he was for the E and the R but not the A.  Big money feared it would be costly to lose the cheap labor pool of women workers and that wages and benefits for women workers would go up.

Moreover, insurance companies, a state-regulated industry, discriminate on the basis of sex in premiums and benefits.  For example, before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, health insurance plans charged women (some 100 to 150 percent more) for the same plans as men on the excuse of possible maternity claims while some 80 percent of individual policies did not cover maternity. Insurance rates were based on a binary male/female gender system that did not account for trans and non-binary people, erasing the existence of trans people and even cutting off their access to health insurance entirely. The ACA bans sex discrimination in pricing and benefits and plans must cover birth control, domestic violence claims, and maternity.  But the ACA can be repealed with a majority vote of both houses of Congress, while ERA cannot be repealed so easily.  Misogyny and discrimination in health insurance impact gender minorities including women, trans people, and non-binary folks. This discrimination costs billions of dollars yearly. Sex discrimination in pricing and benefits still exists in life insurance, auto insurance, annuities, and pension plans.

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