July 20, 1923: Alice Paul introduces the Equal Rights Amendment.
Just three years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote, the initial excitement had dissipated. Many organizations that fought for suffrage had disbanded and an air of satisfaction prevailed. But for Alice Paul and the Women's Party, arguably the most radical group in the movement, the fight had only begun.
July 1923 saw great hoopla in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where the struggle for women's rights had begun in 1848. The 75th anniversary of the original women's convention was celebrated with over-the-top pageantry, including a parade of 100 women in flowing purple gowns and a tableau depicting the moment when Elizabeth Cady Stanton first uttered the thought that women should vote. Stanton's daughter, herself a prominent activist, spoke, and a closing motorcade rode to nearby Rochester to a memorial for Susan B. Anthony.
But Paul was looking to the future and to unfinished business. Paul considered the suffrage victory minimal, just a first step. On July 20, at the Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, she announced that continuing sex discrimination called for yet another constitutional amendment. Rather than mount piecemeal campaigns against every discriminatory law, the Women's Party had formulated what they called "a marvel of simplicity," an amendment stating: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."
It was back to the barricades, then, and the Women's Party created and distributed a weekly newspaper called Equal Rights to support the campaign. By the end of the year, bills to enact the "Equal Rights Amendment" were introduced in both houses of Congress. The opposition this time, however, came from women. Many who had fought for the vote alongside Paul were also longtime advocates of worker's rights, including protective legislation for working women, which the ERA would abolish.
The debate over the next five decades often seemed like class warfare as manufacturers and employers supported the amendment while unions and trade associations opposed it.
The unratified ERA languished until 1972 when, on the wings of a resurgent women's movement, the amendment was reintroduced, passed by Congress and sent to state legislatures for ratification.
Octogenarian Alice Paul hit the campaign trail again. This time, while workers, unions and their advocates supported the measure, a different stripe of female opponent emerged. Phyllis Schlafly and others, pushing back against the tide of progress made by the women's movement, mounted a propaganda campaign claiming that "equality" would mean same-sex toilets and husbands' decamping free of economic responsibilities for their families. Three states short of ratification, the ERA died.
The ERA sits before Congress once more, awaiting action. Introducing it earlier this year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York said, "We are tired of running around stopping inequality when it rears its ugly head." Sounds a lot like Alice Paul.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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For more information:
"Women's Leaders Put ERA Back on Agenda":
Alice Paul Institute, Equal Rights Amendment:
Suffragists Speak, Alice Paul Oral History:
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