The Biden administration's proclamation for Women's History Month underscored the undue social and economic struggles that still disadvantage women in the United States. Women continue to suffer from significant gender disparities in wages and carry the burdens caused by unequal caregiving duties and family responsibilities. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these inequities, especially for Black and Hispanic women. Food insecurity and domestic violence reports have increased considerably during the pandemic, primarily in households with children where women are the primary earners.
These hardships have left supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) wondering whether the turbulence of the pandemic has primed the political and social climate in a way that will allow them to finally push the amendment forward and ensure that it is fully incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. And they may be right.
The long history of the ERA, which dates to the 1920s, shows us that when events disrupt the traditional societal order, they produce a cultural opening for newfound appreciation for the gender equality that undergirds the ERA. Almost a century ago, the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the political upheaval of World War II helped ERA activists create considerable momentum behind the amendment. By the end of World War II, the ranks of amendment backers had grown to include Democrats and Republicans, working-class and upper-class Americans, as well as White and Black Americans. And this is the history that should make the amendment's supporters hopeful today.
Originally introduced in Congress in 1923, the purpose of the ERA is to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and to ensure sex-based equality in the Constitution. In the 1920s, most Americans opposed the ERA. At the time, an array of organizations stood firm against the amendment because they were attached to the belief that women required special protection and sex-based legal treatment. But the Depression-era increase in the regulation of working women pushed more women's groups to recognize the potential disadvantages embedded in sex-specific labor laws. For many women, sex-specific labor polices hindered their ability to find and maintain gainful employment.
The leading organization behind the ERA, the National Woman's Party (NWP), cultivated this growing discontent with such laws through its Depression-era economic campaign, which especially attacked escalating discrimination against working women. Starting in the mid-1930s, the majority of groups that had supported the NWP's economic campaign eventually moved to endorse the ERA. By 1937, official backers of the amendment had grown to more than 10 national women's organizations. Because of a reinvigorated congressional campaign for the ERA, which the NWP launched in the mid-1930s, and the growing support for the amendment among other women's groups, Congress soon became more receptive to the idea of complete constitutional sexual equality. After 1936, congressional subcommittees reported the ERA favorably nearly every year, and by the late 1930s, the ERA had gained the strong backing of several influential members of Congress.
World War II inspired even more support for the ERA. Because of labor shortages, many of the laws designed to protect female workers were suspended during the war with minimum harmful effects, calling into question the need for sex-specific labor laws. More people embraced the ERA during the 1940s because the economic demands of the war meant greater public responsibilities for women. This changed reality gave greater legitimacy to female workers and illuminated women's value as citizens. By 1944, 24 national organizations had endorsed the ERA. By this point, the amendment had gained the backing of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, the first Black American women's organization to endorse the amendment.
As the number of women's organizations supporting the ERA multiplied, interest in the amendment also grew among public figures and celebrities such as actresses Katharine Hepburn and Helen Hayes, radio broadcaster Dorothy Thompson, as well as authors Pearl Buck, James Truslow Adams and Channing Pollock. Political figures also came out in support of the amendment. In 1944, 17 Republican and eight Democratic governors expressed support for the amendment, and both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed the ERA in their party platforms.
By the end of the war, conservative former president Herbert Hoover, left-wing former vice president Henry A. Wallace and President Harry S. Truman had all spoken out in favor of the amendment. The ERA also continued to advance through Congress. In July 1945, the full House Judiciary Committee reported the amendment favorably for the first time. In January 1946, the full Senate Judiciary Committee reported the ERA favorably, too.
Despite the ERA's progress in Congress, the strength of the pro-ERA position steadily declined in the early 1950s, as the ERA's opponents reorganized under the banner of a new group: the National Committee to Defeat the Un-Equal Rights Amendment (NCDURA). After the war had ended, many Americans came to believe that social stability required women to return to their conventional roles as wives and mothers. Thus, the postwar emphasis on the traditionally ordered family opened the door for ERA opponents to reassert themselves.
Re-energized women's activism, which drew inspiration from the civil rights movement, created a reawakening of support for the ERA in the 1970s. Because of this renewed support, Congress passed the amendment in 1972. But despite an extension of the deadline for ratification until 1982, the amendment remained three states short of the required three-fourths support necessary for ratification of a constitutional amendment. After an initial flurry of ratifications, a new anti-ERA movement led by conservative, religious women blossomed, stopping the amendment's progress in its tracks. Like their predecessors, these opponents asserted that full constitutional sexual equality would imperil American society by destroying women's supposedly natural right to special protection.
Thanks to the lobbying work of several pro-ERA groups, the ERA has received three additional ratifications in recent years, giving the amendment the necessary state approvals to be added to the Constitution — depending on whether the congressionally dictated 1982 deadline for ratifications is valid. On Wednesday, the House is set to vote on whether to remove the deadline on the ERA's state ratifications. Even if the House moves to set the deadline aside, the ERA will have to surmount several hurdles to be fully incorporated into the Constitution, and many of those legal issues will probably end up before the Supreme Court.
But there is strong reason to consider that this may be a moment for the ERA to finally get across the finish line. Although the momentum behind the ERA in the 1930s and 1940s faded in the 1950s, the destabilizing nature of the Great Depression and World War II generated considerable support for the ERA that transcended traditional political divisions. Similar to the turbulence of the Depression and World War II, the coronavirus pandemic has also challenged social norms and societal structures on a large scale. Just as the increase in the regulation of working women during the early years of the Depression laid bare the economic struggles that particularly affected women, this pandemic has brought greater awareness to the sexual inequities still embedded in our nation's social fabric.
The Biden administration has established a Gender Policy Council in the White House to begin addressing how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on women professionally and personally. It is possible that as the administration continues to mobilize the resources of the federal government to combat the virus, a deeper appreciation for women's capabilities may take hold in society as it did during World War II. It remains to be seen whether all of these factors will be enough to finally push the ERA forward, but the pandemic's societal upheaval has created an opening for ERA activists to garner more support for the amendment by showing in concrete terms how complete constitutional sexual equality will remove the barriers that have continued to hold women back.
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. This piece was written for The Washington Post.