Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment has long been discussed in the women’s movement, but there was none more passionate about the project than women’s rights activist David Ault, who actively lobbied for its ratification from the 1970s and established the Equal Rights Amendment Project of Women’s Rights. The following article by Ault was published in WOMEN Magazine in 1996, and in honour of her memory we are pleased to republish it at AVfM.—PW
The notion that women need equal rights with men is almost as politically incorrect today as it was in 1978, when I began actively working in Virginia for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even today, the ERA is often referred to as the “men’s rights amendment.” This limited interpretation is difficult to understand given its wording: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I distributed pamphlets that explained why men deserve to have equal rights with women. As Vice Chair of the Virginia Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council, I often passed out our organization’s pamphlet entitled Men of Virginia, Rights You Are Denied.
We did not have a corresponding pamphlet Women of Virginia, Rights You Are Denied. In fact, women’s rights were so excluded from the ERA ratification process that, despite repeated requests by several knowledgeable women, no women were invited to testify on women’s equal rights issues before the U.S. Congressional hearings on ERA ratification.
Harris and Gallup polls informed us then that nearly 60 percent of all Americans favored ERA ratification. Although women were ignored as potential beneficiaries of a ratified ERA, younger women favored the ERA at nearly the same percentage as men. Many older women also supported it.
Despite this majority of men and women in its favor, the ten-year ratification period expired in June 1982 with only 35 of the required 38 states approving its ratification. I recall that some people blamed the ERA’s defeat on women who wanted to keep men “in their place” by denying men equal rights. Particularly targeted for blame were those female legislators from nonratifying states who voted against it.
Upon reflection, perhaps some women are to “blame” for the ERA’s failure to be ratified, but not for the reasons I heard in 1982. During that period of time, I was one of very few women who donated large amounts of their time and money to support ERA ratification. I also voted for political candidates by giving heavy weight to their stand on the ERA. At ERA meetings and workshops, I was often outnumbered by the men present by 10 or 20 to 1. My level of passion in support of the ERA was typical of many American men.
Although many American women supported ERA ratification, their support was more from their heads. Women often explained to me that they supported the ERA for their husband, brother, son, or father. However, they did not donate significant time or money to support its ratification. Judging from the phone calls that I made polling households for ERA support, many women did not vote for pro-ERA candidates as a top priority.
I submit that it was not the women (and men) who opposed the ERA that defeated it. Instead, those women who are largely to “blame” are the majority of women who favored its ratification and yet failed to give it sufficient importance in their lives to see that it passed.
Winning women’s active support for the ERA may be easier today. During recent years, women’s consciousness about their own issues has been raised substantially and the momentum is upward. Women are growing aware of how the narrow gender-role conditioning they receive during society’s indoctrination of them to become protectors and providers negatively affects both their emotional and physical health. They learn that, on average, women not only live 7 years less than men, but women’s quality of life is reduced in trying to live up to this restrictive gender role.
Women are grieving, publicly and privately, for the loss of their mothers and their distance from their own children. They are learning how welfare rules and our mother-negative “family” courts separate caring mothers from their children. They are dismayed by the contribution that motherless families have to the increase in homeless and runaway children, and to teenage suicide, academic failure, drug abuse, violence, and unwed pregnancy.
At the same time that men have control over their parenthood through abortion or adoption, women’s reproductive rights are either ignored or condescendingly dismissed. Women lack the “right to choose” legal motherhood, but have the responsibility of financial support. Further, women have no corresponding right to either custody or noncustodial access to their children.
Although outlawing male genital mutilation gets national media and Congressional attention, over 60% of American female babies still undergo medically unnecessary, involuntary, and painful infant circumcision.
Women realize that only they have the responsibility to register for selective service and may subsequently face the military draft. Further, as men gain the option of volunteering for combat positions, women are still assigned to combat.
Women see programs instituted to help men, while women’s similar concerns go unacknowledged and unfunded. Examples of neglected areas include female academic difficulties at all educational levels, lack of support for “women’s programs” in higher education, failure to acknowledge and support female victims of domestic violence, lack of affirmative action for women to enter predominately male professions, low levels of government support to homeless women, unequal privacy provisions in public restrooms and dressing rooms, failure to recognize and combat male modes of sexual harassment of women, and more stringent employee dress codes for women.
Women are hurting from 30 years of being the object of unwarranted blame, female-bashing, and negative sex-role stereotyping. As their consciousness increases, women will be more receptive to understanding both the harm done to them by continued pressure to conform to rigid role models and the legal injustices still visited upon them. Women will see how unjustified blame and their traditional stoic conditioning have combined to repress any remedy to their equality issues.
However, when women understand how gender-inclusive application of the ERA will benefit them, their pain, anger, and desire for justice will propel them into action to support ERA ratification. Together with men supporters, they will work to successfully win ERA passage in the U.S. Congress and by the necessary three-quarters of the states.
To make this happen, women’s equality issues must be included in the debate over ERA ratification. The first step within each state is to continue to research and document the areas where women are discriminated against by local, state, and federal law. This includes not only laws written in a gender-biased way, but laws that, although gender-neutral in wording, result in bias against women in practice. Sometimes the remedy will not require changing the law; instead, changing public opinion will result in an equitable application of existing law. In other cases, the law will require modification or elimination.
The second step is to bring women’s equality issues and the ERA remedies to the attention of the public and our legislative bodies. Women might begin by asking each state legislature to memorialize the ERA again, as Washington State did in 1983. Memorialization means that the state legislature passes a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to pass the ERA and to send it out to the states for ratification. However, the reasons expressed this time by each state legislature for memorializing the ERA must include the need for women’s equal rights.
The third step is to secure an invitation for knowledgeable women to testify for the first time before the U.S. Congress when hearings are held again on the ERA. This will have three important benefits. First, it will help to bring the issue of discrimination against women before the entire country. Second, it will increase American women’s identification of ERA ratification with ending this discrimination. Third, it will create an official record of Congress’s intent to include equal rights for women in its justification for the ERA.
This Congressional record will be vital to women after the ERA is ratified, because judges often consider legislative intent in deciding how to apply the law to a specific case. After the Congress records its support for women’s rights, women will find it much easier to use the ERA to right legal injustices against them.
Finally, prepared with our research and buoyed by state and federal recognition of women’s need for the ERA, women must continue to educate the public and join with men in the ERA ratification process. With men and women working together for a gender-inclusive ERA, to quote Susan B. Anthony, “Failure is impossible.”