History, History Column

Ratification ERA – 2021

by ©2021 Sarah Becker

Ratification ERA – 2021

Sometimes fate has a way of writing a new chapter. In truth, the ongoing fight for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] has left me fatigued. But now—with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation—for reason of sexual misconduct—the arrival of New York State’s first female Governor, the AFL-CIO’s first female President—the political worm has turned.

On March 17, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives again passed the Equal Rights Amendment. My only question: By what date will Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin [D-IL], Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer [D-NY] deliver an affirmative vote?

The American Heritage dictionary defines chauvinism as the “prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own group.” The Oxford American Dictionary defines chauvinism as “excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty;” a male chauvinist as a “man showing excessive loyalty to men and prejudice against women.” The New Jersey constitution “granted the right to vote to ‘all free inhabitants’ thus enfranchising women until 1807: when a new state constitution restricted suffrage to males.”

The U.S. Census Bureau defined the term free inhabitant in 1790. “Assistant marshals listed the name of each head of household, and asked the following questions: The number of free White males aged under 16 years, of 16 years and upward; Number of free White females; Number of other free persons, and Number of slaves. Free inhabitants were not listed individually until 1850.

In one of the colonial era’s few examples of women’s suffrage, Lady Deborah Moody was permitted to vote in a Long Island town meeting in 1655. Of greater interest—to me at least—was the women’s literacy measure. “The determination was made on the basis of women’s ability to sign their names to documents with either an ‘X’ or a written signature. Massachusetts’ illiteracy rate was 50%, New Netherland’s 60%, and Virginia’s 75%.

Henings Collection of the Laws of Virginia refers to femes covert—“orphans, femes covert and persons of unsound mind”—beginning in 1657-8.

Sir William Blackstone described the doctrine of coverture in his 1765 Commentaries: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law—a feme-covert….”

“A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances,” the Harvard Business School explained. “Many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, be it youth, poverty, or enslavement.”

“The doctrine’s empirical roots were in the customs of medieval Normandy,” author Norma Basch concluded. “The concept of marital unity’s…religious origins were in the one-flesh doctrine of Christianity.” Bottom line: abortion is controversial, vasectomies are not.

The law of coverture lingered until the 1970s. “The work experience of women is considerably influenced by their household duties and the presence of children,” the U.S. Census Bureau wrote in 1972. “For women 16 to 39 years old, that is, those more involved in childrearing only 36 percent worked 50 to 52 weeks in 1969.”

In 1776 Abigail Adams lobbied husband, John, on behalf of women’s rights: “I desire you would Remember the Laidies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticular care and attention is not paid to the Laidies, we…will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Nowhere in the index to The Federalist Papers did I find a categorial listing for women. I found only Virginian James Madison’s explanation of Negro slaves, Paper #54:

“The federal constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live…and it is admitted that if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the Negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants.” Were married women not also viewed “in the mixed character of persons and property?” The takeaway for Negroes voting rights; for women’s equal rights is?

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was first published in 1792, the same year Alexandria Quaker Edward Stabler opened his Apothecary shop. Free, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary: “(1) Not bound or constrained, at liberty; (2) Not under obligation or necessity; (3a) Having political independence, and (3b) Governed by consent and possessing civil liberties.”

In the 1830s gender hierarchy, separate spheres, and marital unity defined the rules of engagement. In New York, in 1832, bridegroom and newspaper editor Robert Dale Owen, of Scotland and Indiana “wrote a bold” marriage contract: “Of the unjust rights which in virtue of this ceremony an iniquitous law tacitly gives me over the person and property of another, I cannot legally, but I can morally divest myself. And I hereby…declare that I consider myself…utterly divested, now and during the rest of my life, of any such rights ….” The State of New York took note and passed its model Married Women’s Property Act 16 years later.

“[Man] has never permitted [woman] to exercise her inalienable right to elective franchise,” Quakers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in their 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention Declaration of Sentiments. “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice; made her, if married, civilly dead; taken from her all rights in property, even to the wages she earns; and usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” Marital rape, a discussion topic in 1848, did not become a crime until 1976.

“The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. “Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage…Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”

Victoria Woodhull New York stockbroker, newspaper publisher, divorcee, and Equal Rights Party candidate was the first woman to run for President—in 1872.  Woodhull backed equal rights as does 2020 Presidential candidate, now Vice President and former U.S. Senator Kamala Harris [D-CA]. Harris supports the ERA’s passage. Yet it remains stalled in the Senate.

It was Radical Republicans who passed the 38th Senate’s Res.16, a law which included no time limit for ratification and became the constitution’s 13th Amendment. Amendment 13, as passed and ratified in 1865: “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Passage of Amendment 15 followed.

The 19th Amendment, the women’s voting rights amendment was ratified in 1920. “To get the ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign [1868-1920],” Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association recounted. The 66th Congress, 1919-1921, included zero women.

Quaker Alice Paul first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1923. The amendment then read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

“President and Quaker Richard Nixon [1969-1974, R-CA]…publicly endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in near verbatim terms both during his vice-presidency, and then presidential campaign of 1968,” the Nixon Library confirmed. “Under the Nixon administration Representative Martha Griffiths [D-MI] and Senator Birch Bayh [D-IN] pushed the ERA in Congress.”

“Forty years ago, American women were given the constitutional right to vote,” Vice President Nixon wrote on September 2, 1960. “Today it is accepted as a matter of course that men and women have an equal election franchise in this country….

But the task of achieving Constitutional equality between the sexes still is not completed,” Nixon continued. “The platform adopted by the Republican National Convention…in July…supported the long-time movement for such equality when it said: ‘Congress should submit a Constitutional amendment providing equal rights for women’….

A[n] equal rights amendment…would add equality between the sexes to the freedoms and liberties guaranteed to all Americans,” Nixon concluded.

The Equal Rights Amendment, January 18, 1972: “Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Three states short and not yet ratified, Congress—at President Jimmy Carter’s (D-GA) urging—extended the 1979 deadline to 1982.

Given Nevada, Illinois and Virginia’s more recent ratifications, the required 38 states, ERA activists now argue—contrary to a District Court ruling—“the ERA is already part of the formal Constitution—that there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that sets a time limit on ratification.”  Their example: the oft referred to James Madison “compensation” amendment, the constitution’s Amendment 27. One of the original 12 Amendments, it was passed by Congress September 25, 1789, and ratified 203 years later—on May 7, 1992.

As for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) tale: five states including Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho and South Dakota have withdrawn their 1972 ratification votes. “The Kentucky legislature’s resolution to rescind ERA ratification was the object of a bitter fight,” The Washington Post reported in 1978. “Ratified in a special session in 1972, Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall, an outspoken backer of the ERA, vetoed the [1978] measure.” McConnell’s conundrum: the constitution’s Article V speaks to ratification only; not rescindment, or as South Dakota says lapse.

“In pleading our just cause before the bar of history…we shall be guided by certain fixed principles,” President Dwight Eisenhower [R-KS] said in his 1953 Inaugural Address. “Conceiving the defense of freedom, like freedom itself, to be one and indivisible, we hold all continents and peoples in equal regard and honor. We reject any insinuation that one race or another, one people or another is in any sense inferior….”

“I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light,” Abigail Adams wrote her sister Elizabeth 222 years ago, in 1799. “Let each planet shine in their own orbit, God and nature designed it so—if man is Lord, woman is Lordess—that is what I contend for—and if a woman does not hold the Reigns of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted.”

A 2020 poll found that the Equal Rights Amendment continues to have significant majority support nationally. Does the 1972 ERA have your support? Six states—in the absence of—have written “the identical base text of the Equal Rights Amendment” into their constitutions: Maryland is one.

We currently live in a pandemic era; women are stressed, and political chauvinism has no place. In 1970 the U.S. House of Representatives depended on a “discharge petition” to secure passage of the ERA. Why? Because “the Judiciary Committee never held hearings…during the 21 years that Representative Emanuel Celler [D-NY] has been its Chairman,” The New York Times said. Neither did the House Judiciary Committee hold hearings between November 15, 1983, and April 30, 2019.

“Virginia’s historic vote to become the 38th state to ratify the ERA sends a clear message that this issue is as pertinent as ever,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler [D-NY] said soon after the Commonwealth’s January 15, 2020, vote.

Now is the time to hold the 117th Senate accountable. A later reply may well involve the U.S. Supreme Court: or starting the Amendment ratification process over.

About the Author: Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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