Ironically the demise of the second wave feminist movement was the one piece of legislation fundamental to the concept of equality and basic human dignity, the Equal Rights Amendment, ERA was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women. The National Woman’s Party had introduced the Equal Rights Amendment to every congress since 1923 until the feminist movement finally saw passage in the House in 1970 and the Senate in 1972.
The Republican Party included support of the ERA in its platform beginning in 1940, renewing the plank every four years until 1980. There was strong opposition in the democratic party from labor groups including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Nurses Association under the presumption that working class women needed government protection. Eugene McCarthy, leader of the Anti-war movement in the Democratic Party, was also chief author of the ERA.
Initially public support for the ERA was strong. Within a year after its passage in the Senate the ERA had been ratified by thirty states. Opposition to the ERA quickly organized around the protection of women. Phyllis Schlafly became the spokesperson for the Stop ERA movement emphasizing a threat to the security of middle-aged housewives. Organizers claimed women would lose their right to alimony and child custody.
Religious conservatives, Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Roman Catholics argued that the amendment would guarantee universal abortion rights, same sex marriage, and eliminate single-sex bathrooms. By 1977 only five additional states had ratified the amendment, three short of the required thirty-eight. By 1996 men had reasserted the “traditional marriage,” when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Philp A. Randoph, founder of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) initiated the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King gave his infamous I Have a Dream speech. Neither of these groups felt women should be included in the Civil Rights Act. Black Women argued that black families were heavily dependent on women’s income and discrimination against women would be damaging to black families. The cause of black women was largely responsible for the inclusion of sex and gender in Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964.
On the basis of Title VII, Women continued fighting for equity in the courts, fighting for custody, fighting for alimony, and ultimately fighting for their very lives against the threat of domestic violence. In 1970 only 13 percent of families were headed by a single parent. By 1996 that number had doubled with 84 percent of these families headed by women. Dissolving family values fueled a divorce industry that would grow to fifty billion dollars by 2005.
The African American civil rights movement was split between civil disobedience and Black Power. The feminist movement was divided between empowerment and protectionism.
Perhaps the most effective tactic of the ERA opposition movement threatened that women would lose their exemption from the draft. A new chapter in the ERA story began this week when U.S. District Court Judge Gray Miller declared that exempting women from registering for the draft violates the Constitution's equal protection principles. Attorney Marc Angelucci, representing the National Coalition for Men, says, "There really is no more excuse to only require men to register."
The #MeToo movement is demanding greater protection for women against sexual assault and domestic violence at the same time income and social inequality are expanding. How we define equals rights is a challenging discussion that is clearly taking on new dimensions.