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National Woman's Party Conference, Seneca Falls, New York, July 21 1923. Visual Materials from the National Woman’s Party Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Centennial of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): Origins and Early Debates

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On July 20 and 21, 1923, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) convened at Seneca Falls, New York, to celebrate the recent ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, securing women nationally the right to vote, and to begin a campaign for a new amendment that would guarantee legal equality for women. Initially this new amendment was named the Lucretia Mott Amendment, in honor of one of the principal organizers of the first women’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848, but later it would be known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The draft amendment presented that July at the NWP convention (and to the U.S. Congress later that year) read, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The ERA sparked many debates over the course of the twentieth century, and one hundred years later it is still under deliberation. While much of the history of the ERA is often focused on the 1970s, the discourse during the first few decades after the amendment’s introduction showcases the differing viewpoints held by labor feminists, African American women, and various women’s organizations at that time.

Monochrome magazine masthead with cartoon below, showing male figure representing Congress pushing ERA through meat grinder as group of state-level female suffragists feed machine
Nina E. Allender, political cartoon on the cover of the July 28, 1923, issue of the National Woman’s Party publication, Equal Rights, depicting the need for the U.S. Congress to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, rather than relying on state legislation. Box OV:41, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Opposition to the ERA was immediate, even before Alice Paul and the NWP announced their legislative campaign at Seneca Falls in 1923. Strong disapproval came not only from political conservatives, but also from progressive feminists within the labor movement who wanted to preserve protective labor laws for wage-earning women. National Consumers’ League (NCL) leader Florence Kelley criticized “Alice Paul’s terrifying draft for a federal amendment” as early as 1921, while the amendment remained in the proposal stage.[1] Kelley and other labor feminists, white and black, contended that women were biologically different than men, and needed special laws in order to protect their distinct reproductive role in society. These hard-won protections for women included shorter working hours, required rest breaks, prohibitions on night work, and limits on heavy lifting. Labor feminists also hoped that protective laws could eventually be extended to all workers. For these reasons, many women’s organizations did not, at first, support the ERA, including the NCL, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the League of Women Voters.[2]

Dorothy K. Funn, a legislative expert for the National Negro Congress, opposed the ERA, siding with the view of labor activists that women benefited from protective legislation. In 1944, she urged African Americans to oppose the bill, arguing that it was “ANTI-LABOR,” that women wage-earners during World War II especially needed protections, and calling out the NWP as “wealthy, powerful, non-working; women of leisure.” Funn concluded that “whenever a piece of legislation works a hardship on people in general, the Negro people specifically suffer most,” believing that removing protections for women could result in adversities for women and potentially for other workers.[3]

Other African American women reached a different conclusion concerning the ERA, and they too brought their experiences with racial discrimination to the debate. Despite enduring racism as one of the NWP’s few black members, civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell maintained her membership in the NWP and was a supporter of the ERA.[4] She had been a member of the NWP during the struggle for the Nineteenth Amendment and had picketed the White House with her daughter Phyllis Terrell Langston. As a founder and former president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Terrell likely influenced the NACW to lend its support to the amendment as early as January 1936.[5]

Monochrome telegram with text pasted on line by line
Telegram, Mary F. Waring to Mary Church Terrell, January 15, 1936, demonstrating the National Association of Colored Women’s (NACW) support for the ERA. Box 10, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Terrell heartily disagreed with Funn’s 1944 article and drafted a response to her, which may not have been published at the time.[6] Terrell’s trenchant reply began, “I am deeply grieved that any colored woman would oppose any legislation providing equal rights along any line of human endeavor.” And, she asserted, “colored women must realize that the so-called protective laws introduced under such a humanitarian title do not protect the colored women.” She noted that protective labor laws did not help African American women, arguing that,

“The ten o’clock law has not helped the charwoman who must scrub on her knees till five or six o’clock in the morning. No one worries about their morals because their jobs are not wanted by men. It is in the newspaper offices, in restaurants where tips are largest at night, and in jobs where overtime work commands extra pay that women are banished. Men push the protective idea to protect their own jobs. They ‘protected’ the high-paid women right of out of their jobs but left the poor charwomen right on their knees.”

Terrell also refuted Funn’s assertion that the ERA was Republican legislation, noting that both major political parties supported the measure. In a move to promote business interests, the Republicans in 1940 had become the first major political party to support the ERA, but by 1944 the Democratic Party supported it as well.[7]

Terrell and other NACW members participated with other supporting organizations as part of the Women’s Joint Legislative Committee for Equal Rights, a pro-ERA lobbying coalition founded in 1943. The committee’s June 30, 1946, meeting minutes noted, that Terrell “emphasized that the other large organizations of colored women had never taken a vote as to how they stood on the Amendment and that opposition was taken by one leader.”[8] This opposition by “one leader” presumably referred to the influential African American educator and leader Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune’s anti-ERA stance likely had to do with supporting the labor movement’s position on the amendment at that time.

Monochrome broadsheet outlining opposition against National Woman's Party Amendment
This leaflet lists the names of women’s organizations opposed to the ERA, circa 1940s. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs has been redacted from the list after their membership voted in support the ERA in 1944. Box V: 347, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

From the birth of the ERA onward, supporters, including Terrell, and detractors of the ERA testified before congressional committees on various aspects of the issue. By 1943, the version of the ERA proposed to Congress had incorporated language based on the Fifteenth Amendment: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Milestone legislative changes also occurred, including the passage of the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, which provided limited protections for both men and women in certain occupations, including a federal minimum wage. Due to the FLSA and women’s participation in the war effort in the 1940s, the ERA began to garner gradual support from previously opposed women’s organizations, including the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) in 1944. The GFWC was one of the largest women’s organizations at the time, and it was a major victory for pro-ERA feminists when that group changed its position.[9] After the first several decades of substantial debate over the ERA, the women’s movement of the 1960s would create an upsurge of support for the amendment.

The Library of Congress, including the Manuscript Division, holds numerous collections for the study of this complex history of the ERA, including the papers or records of the National Woman’s Party, National Consumers’ League, Mary Church Terrell, and National League of Women Voters.

[1] Florence Kelley to Felix Frankfurter, October 10, 1921, box 157, Felix Frankfurter Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. See also Rebecca DeWolf, Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 63.

[2] Robyn Muncy, “The Equal Rights Amendment,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia: American History, edited by Jon Butler (Oxford University Press, 2019), 3-5.

[3] Dorothy K. Funn, “The Legislative Front – The ‘Equal Rights’ Amendment,” Congress Vue 1, no. 9 (February, 1944), 6, reel 3.2, Papers of the National Negro Congress, Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1988, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Alison M. Parker, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 131, 261-263.

[5] Mary F. Waring to Mary Church Terrell, January 15, 1936, and Rosa M. Wade to Mary Church Terrell, January 21, 1936, box 10, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Betty Graham Swing, “Report of the Congressional Committee,” Equal Rights, (February 1, 1936), 2.

[6] Terrell apparently met with Funn in spring 1944 and it appears that the NWP encouraged her to publish her response to Funn. See Gaeta Wold Boyer to Mary Church Terrell, April 11, 1944, box 13, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] DeWolf, Gendered Citizenship, 146-147; “ERA Democrats” document, box V:7, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] See also Alison M. Parker, Unceasing Militant, 261.

[9] Anna Kelton Wiley, “Clubs of the General Federation Endorse Equal Rights Amendment,” Equal Rights 30, no. 5 (May 1944), 1-2.


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