Now that Phyllis Schlafly and her supporters are planning a celebration--today is the day Equal Right Amendment dies--it seems timely to go back in history and look at another lost battle over the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised black males while excluding women.
In denying the vote to women more than 100 years ago, Congress raised questions about equality and citizenship that still remain unsettled. Women were grouped with the insane and children as people who were not sufficiently rational to vote. If our elected representatives wanted intellectual support for their 19th-century arguments, there was no dearth.
They could always cite Aristotle, who believed that women's domestic responsibilities did not permit them time to act in the public forum. Rousseau, who valued freedom highly, was evidently not so enamored of equality, for he believed that women were not to participate in the republic but were "within the chaste confines of the conjugal union to persuade their husbands to follow the path of public virtue and to educate their sons to be good citizens, and thus to act on behalf of the glory of the state and public happiness." Even Thomas Jefferson, that staunch defender of democracy, thought that women, infants and slaves should not be full participants in that democracy.
Post-Civil War attitudes on women were confused. Women had been among the strongest supporters of the Abolitionist movement. Women had allied themselves with men in the fight for emancipation, yet found the alliance disintegrated quickly once that goal was achieved, and the question of women's suffrage remained unresolved. The refusal of the Republicans to honor their commitments to the women who had worked with them on the slavery issue resulted in deep fissures in the women's movement and an abrupt decline in the political influence of women in the years ahead.
Susan B. Anthony and 13 women in Rochester attempted to vote in 1872 (two years after the 15th Amendment had ignored them) and were arrested and indicted along with the registrars. Anthony was tried in district court without a jury and found guilty. She refused to pay the fine, saying that the "small-brained judge had with remarkable forethought penned his decision before hearing the case."
Then, as now, women were demanding the full rights of citizenship. Then, to a greater extent, they needed the support of men, as no women were part of the decision-making process that could grant the right to vote. When many of the men whom they had regarded as allies asked the women to remain silent and not confuse their cause with black male suffrage, suffragists knew they had lost. Those who continued the battle found themselves labeled racists, and the women's movement suffered damage that lasted generations. As with ERA, support was intense, but not sufficiently widespread. Not enough people thought the issue was truly important. The diehards, however, continued to introduce what came to be known as the Anthony amendment in both houses of Congress from 1878 until its final passage in 1919.
In Bradwell v. Illinois (1872), women were denied the right to practice law in Illinois, and it was ruled that the deprivation did not violate the 14th Amendment. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), it was decided that a state (Missouri) could deny the right to vote to women since voting was not protected by the 14th Amendment, and women were not covered by the 15th. Indeed, why would the 15th Amendment have been necessary if voting were a privilege and immunity covered by the language of the 14th? Despite minority views defining voting as a right, majority constitutional interpretation was firmly against women.
In the light of history, it is understandable that women would like to see spelled out clearly and simply within the Constitution a statement of equal rights. Women who agreed to hold their arguments in favor of the blacks during the 15th Amendment debates were to wait a full 50 years before they gained the vote.
Now, a single sentence, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex" has apparently frightened state legislatures across the country. Can we really leave a guarantee of equal rights to the states? One would think that question was settled with the passage of the 14th Amendment. Reviving the debate would certainly be ahistorical. If the ERA is politically bankrupt as its critics contend, then they are suffering from historic amnesia and need to have their memories jolted by looking backward to the unhappy history of the 15th Amendment.
What lessons have we learned? The same people who seek to write speed limits and prayer into the Constitution see no need to specify equal rights. For this type of opposition, the motto of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their publication, Revolution, must reek of radicalism: "Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less."