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A group of people hold signs and wear octagon-shaped badges while standing in front of the White House.
Demonstrators opposed to the ERA in front of the White House. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, February 4, 1977. //

Divided on the ERA: A Proposed Amendment’s Uncertain Future

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Late July. A time of year that engenders thoughts of summer near its peak, with lots of sun and warm days. But this past month also marks the 100th anniversary of the National Woman’s Party Conference in Seneca Falls, New York, where a century ago, suffragists were buzzing off the energy of their hard-won victory for women’s voting rights and making plans for their next big legislative move.

A large group of mostly women stand together outdoors for an oversize photographic portrait in front of an ivy covered building.
The National Woman’s Party Conference, Seneca Falls, N.Y. Photo, July 21,1923. //

Recently, a Library colleague in the Manuscript Division wrote an informative blog post on the origin story of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—known then as the Lucretia Mott Amendment—which was proposed at the 1923 Seneca Falls conference on the heels of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The new amendment sought legal equality for all, regardless of sex, in every facet of American society.

Unlike women’s suffrage, the ERA has yet to be legally enacted. Remaining in legislative limbo, it has not been without its proponents and detractors.

The Prints & Photographs Division (P&P), serving as a receptacle for the pictorial histories of our Nation’s stories, is home to the Visual Materials of the National Woman’s Party records, which trace the fight for the ERA’s passage over decades. P&P’s holdings are illustrative of the opposing position as well, which came into being soon after the Amendment was promoted.

Just fifteen years out from the ERA’s emergence, New York attorney Dorothy Straus testified against passing the amendment in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1938.

Dorothy Straus handles papers on her lap while seated in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Opposes Equal Rights Amendment. Washington, D.C., Feb. 7. Dorothy Straus, New York attorney, today testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the Equal Rights for Women Constitutional Amendment which is not being considered. The proposed amendment sponsored by Senator Burke and Townsend Reads “men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction…”. Photo by Harris & Ewing, February 7, 1938. //

Straus, who was among the first group of women admitted to the Bar Association of New York City, was a proponent of women’s advancement in society. Her worry that this amendment would force beneficial labor laws to change motivated her opposition to it. Straus’ testimony against the sponsored amendment aimed to give a voice to those not in favor of its ratification.

In later years, photographer Warren K. Leffler, working for U.S. News and World Report, shot this image of anti-ERA demonstrators gathered near the White House. Some hold signs and wear oversized badges that read ‘STOP ERA’. Other signs propose theoretical scenarios as the would-be consequences of ERA ratification.

STOP ERA, the activist group founded by attorney Phyllis Schlafly, organized this 1977 demonstration in advance of that year’s National Women’s Conference, an event that offered federal funding to attending women delegates. Held in Houston, Texas, the conference was an opportunity for attendees to debate proposed legislation, including the ERA. STOP ERA’s D.C. demonstration was meant to challenge the conference’s government support and grow the ranks of those averse to the ERA’s possible passage.

A group of people hold signs and wear octagon-shaped badges while standing in front of the White House.
Demonstrators opposed to the ERA in front of the White House. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, February 4, 1977. //

Schlafly would continue organizing events in opposition to the proposed amendment, which was eventually only ratified by 35 of the 38 states required for its passage before the 1982 deadline. Here, Schlafly stands with North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (left) and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (right) at an anti-ERA dinner in 1979. A banner behind them lists the names of the states that had chosen not to ratify the ERA, including North Carolina and Utah.

Phyllis Schlafly stands flanked by Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch in front of a large text-filled banner.
Activist Phyllis Schlafly, with two men at a dinner held to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, March 22, 1979. //

Due to the momentum of Schlafly’s cause in conjunction with other opposition groups, divisions between ERA supporters and those against it grew. This divide was ultimately enough to stymie passage of the amendment and keep it further stalled for years.

The ERA remains a focus of the women’s rights movement to this day, with the prerequisite 38 states now having ratified the amendment and a push in Congress to either negate the original deadline or introduce a new, comparable amendment for state consideration. Time will reveal the outcome of a story made visible in photographs and traced through P&P’s holdings.

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Comments (3)

  1. Many thanks for this informative series! I moved to D.C. to change the world in 1979, ad promptly answred an ad in the Washington Post for “feminist-activist.” It was for Women’s Resources for Action, which ran a door to door canvass on behalf of te National Women’s Political Caucus for ERA passage. It changed my life, turning me from someone who couldn’t ask strangers for directions to someone who could ask them for money – and get it. Ironically, I owe my career to Phyllis Schafley. I am proud that my state, Virginia, finally ratified the ERA – perhaps 40 years too late.

  2. Is that possibly Orrin Hatch on Schlafly’s right?

    • Hi, Joanne,
      Thank you for your comment. Orrin Hatch (on Schlafly’s left) is one of the two men in the photograph with Phyllis Schlafly at an anti-ERA dinner in 1979. The other man (on Schlafly’s right) is Jesse Helms.

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