It wasn't until the year 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were able to vote all across America.
"In the history books, they keep saying that women 'got equality' or 'got the vote,'" says Ellie Smeal, a leader in the modern-day women's rights movement and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We didn't 'get' any vote. We fought for that."
The fight took more than 130 years after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which originally granted voting rights only to white, land-owning men in the United States. Yet another battle that's long been taking place for gender equality, also born out of the Constitution, still hasn't found resolution. The Equal Rights Amendment — proposed in 1923, shortly after women gained suffrage — aimed to finally cement in the Constitution that men and women are equal under U.S. law. But that amendment still hasn't been officially approved.
The fifth episode of The Washington Post's "Constitutional" podcast explores the challenging path toward gender equality in America, highlighting figures from the Revolutionary period through today who have shaped the country's evolution on such rights.
Episode guests include Smeal and Julie Miller, a historian in the manuscripts division of the Library of Congress.
Check out the “Constitutional” Web page and subscribe to get new episodes free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. For updates about the series, you can also follow podcast host Lillian Cunningham on Twitter: @lily_cunningham
Transcript of "Episode 05: Gender"
Lillian Cunningham: In March of 1776, as the colonies were preparing to declare independence from England, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams. She was at home in Braintree, Massachusetts, which is just south from Boston along the bay. Her husband was off getting ready for revolution. And she wrote to him:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make,” she says: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Julie Miller: She meant what she said. But I don't think she expected her husband to take her seriously, and in fact he did not.
Cunningham: None of the men who created the laws and framework for this new democracy took women’s rights seriously. That was totally absent from the Constitution. But Abigail Adam’s words were an omen for America.
Miller: What Abigail Adams was saying is just as the colonies rebelled against Britain, so shall we women rebel.
Cunningham: And women did. Those laws denying them any voice or representation have been met with revolt. And that rebellion, ignited more than 230 years ago, is still on fire today.
I’m Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post, and this is Constitutional.
Cunningham: Women haven’t fully been represented among “we the people” for most of American history. It took until the year 1920 for the 19th Amendment to pass and for women to finally gain the right to vote. That’s recent enough that there are still women around today who were alive to see its passage.
Now, often when you hear the story of how women fought for that right to vote in America, the tale usually begins at Seneca Falls, a quiet town by the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. It’s where the first women’s rights convention took place, in 1848.
But the story really starts long before that -- nearly 150 years before the 19th amendment was passed, during the American Revolution.
Miller: In the period of the revolution, there was a lot of thought about liberation of various subjected peoples.
Cunningham: Julie Miller is an old friend from the Presidential podcast. She’s a historian at the Library of Congress.
Miller: And there were little tiny movements towards giving women greater autonomy. There was some liberalization of the divorce laws in a couple of American States. And there was a movement to open schools for girls, so girls could get better education. This is also the period when, as states emerge from being colonies and began to write constitutions, when the Northern States began to banish slavery.
Cunningham: In fact, New Jersey’s state constitution, which was written in 1776, initially allowed African Americans and women to vote.
Miller: So there's this period -- from the period of revolution through like the 1790s -- where it looks as if there's kind of a change. And then what happened in the early 19th century was there was a sort of a return to conservatism. For both slaves and women, there was a kind of a backtracking.
Cunningham: Their ability to vote in New Jersey lasted only until 1807. Then the state legislature stripped away that right. This corresponded to a broader retreat that was going on across American society in the nation’s early years -- away from gender equality.
Miller: The economy was growing very rapidly and there was a series of economic crashes. And there was kind of a return of social conservatism that reflected people's anxiety about entering the middle class -- and how easy it was to drop out of the middle class and become poor again. And one byproduct of this was sort of an enhancement of ideas about women's place in the home. Part of this also was urbanization. This idea began to develop that it was really the urban middle-class married woman who was supposed to stay at home and not do really noticeable work.
But if you go back to, for example, Abigail Adams’s generation, Abigail Adams worked all the time. You know I mean she lived on a farm, she managed the farm. There was there was a kind of a rejection in the early 19th century of some of the ideas about women's equality.
Cunningham: This rejection and retreat prompted a growing resentment among some women, though. They realized it was hypocritical for a country founded on principles of justice to be going backward on women’s equality instead of forward.
Not only could women not vote or hold any kind of elected office in America, but they had no legal identity separate of their husbands. In most cases, they couldn’t sign contracts, own property, go to college, get jobs in certain professions, receive their own paychecks for work, or even gain custody of their children in a divorce.
Soon enough, Abigail Adams’s prediction started to look prescient -- that if women aren’t accounted for in the laws, the country is going to have another rebellion on its hands.
Miller: There was really a rising sense of anger. And you see this when you look at the writings, for instance, of Lydia Maria Child, 1843. Lydia Maria Child was a very early and important American novelist, and she made her living writing things like “The American Frugal Housewife,” with all kinds of interesting tips for how to keep your household. She wrote a magazine for children. She wrote “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go,” which is the only thing we remember about her today. And one of the things that she recognized, along with the other members of the women's rights movement, is that chivalry is really a cover for robbing women of their rights.
And she warns there's some violence being harbored by these wives and daughters. She suggests: What if they were armed and could avenge these wrongs? And she says, “Alas, they are armed. And the terrible wreck they make among human souls is more painful to the reflecting mind than piles of dead bodies.” This is quite interesting. She's basically saying: Watch out men. Your wives and daughters are pretty angry, just like I am.
Cunningham: So this is a mood that’s bubbling up among some women across the country in the early 1800s. It’s a time when revolutions are still happening abroad--and the abolition of slavery is gaining more and more momentum here in America. So both of those things are encouraging women to push back harder against their own injustices, too.
All of this builds to that first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York. And the story starts with a woman named Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Miller: Okay, so Elizabeth Cady Stanton was sort of a small plump woman with curly hair and piercing blue eyes. And as she got older, she got fatter and fatter. And if you look at a picture of her, she has these sort of white sausage shaped curls on the top of her head and kind of plump cheeks, and she wore this big dress with a shawl. I mean, she's exactly what you imagine Mother Hubbard or somebody looking like. But she was in fact a violent revolutionary.
Cunningham: So Elizabeth Cady married Henry Stanton in 1840 and for their honeymoon they went to England to attend an international abolitionist conference. And while she’s there, she met Lucretia Mott. Lucretia Mott was a quaker from Philadelphia and also an abolitionist.
Miller: Lucretia Mott was kind of a tall, thin woman who dressed as Quakers dressed -- so she dressed in a very plain gown with one of those little white frilly caps on her head. It was not a good fashion era. And she had a little round granny glasses kind of like John Lennon.
And what happened at this convention is that the women delegates who had gone there to attend this convention were not seated. In other words, the organizers of the convention felt that women should not be delegates. And there was a lot of indignation on the part of the women delegates, among them Lucretia Mott.
At that meeting Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton walked around London together, and they cooked up the idea of having a convention for women's rights. In other words, the women's rights movement was born out of the abolition movement. So this is 1840.
What happened next was that everybody went home, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began having many, many children. They lived in various places. And at one point they moved to Seneca Falls, New York. And western New York at this time was a pretty vital place -- and the reason it was vital was because of the Erie Canal, which had opened in 1825 and had brought a certain amount of economic prosperity to the region. So for example, Susan B. Anthony was living nearby, Frederick Douglass was living nearby. There were stops on the underground railroad through that region.
And what happened was Lucretia Mott came to visit her sister, who lived more or less in the vicinity of Seneca Falls, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was nearby. These two women, who had previously met, got together. They revived their idea of having a conference. And they organized it very quickly.
Cunningham: They schedule for the convention to take place over July 19th and 20th of 1848. And they start inviting people to come.
Miller: The reason that 1848 was the moment when the Seneca Falls convention happened was because there was a rising sense of possibility. Really all of the women who gathered at that convention were participants in the abolition movement. So these were women who had learned to articulate ideas about rights -- rights of slaves. They had learned to speak in public, controversially in some cases. They had learned to write in favor of abolition. And they learned to petition congressmen and to organize conventions. So they had become political beings, even though they didn't have the vote.
And some of these women who were used to speaking in public began to feel that they too wanted full equal rights, just in the same way that former slaves did. So this is a bunch of women who were in a sense trained in the abolition movement to be political actors.
Cunningham: Roughly 300 people showed up for the convention -- mostly women, but not all. And there was one African American there: abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass.
Miller: It was in a church and it was in the middle of the week -- I guess because the church was available in the middle of the week. And when they showed up, the door was locked and someone had to climb around the back and go in a window in order to get the door open.
Cunningham: It wasn’t exactly a well-funded, super-organized convention. But it was the first real moment that scattered voices and efforts for women’s rights were able to come together and create the foundation for an organized movement.
Miller: And that moment really becomes very explosive. You know it becomes a moment when things can start to happen.
Cunningham: The convention featured a lecture on law; discussions about women’s rights and role in society; speeches from the organizers. And in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, she put forward the idea that women need the right to vote.
Miller: One of the arguments that was made against women's suffrage was that women should be content to have men represent them. And basically she said: Well look what sort of job these men are doing! She was in favor of equal rights for women, but she did not think that men and women are exactly the same. She thought women were better than men -- that they had better moral qualities. And she said: Look what a mess you make of voting, for example how much violence there is at the polling booths.
She said, for example: “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.” She's saying because women are not fully participating in public life, nations suffer because they don't have that benefit.
Cunningham: Pushing for the right to vote was a pretty radical idea, even among the progressive women at the conference. Lucretia Mott wasn’t so sure about it. Many of the attendees weren’t so sure about it. Frederick Douglass, however, spoke up in support of Stanton. And after he did, the right to vote became one of the resolutions issued by the convention.
In an article he wrote write after the convention, Douglass explained: “All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being is equally true of woman” -- and so, he says, there’s “no reason in the world” for denying women the right to vote.
The convention actually created a full list of resolutions, along with an accompanying document called the Declaration of Sentiments.
Miller: The women who agitated for women's rights were very historically aware themselves, and they referred back to the American revolutionary era. The Declaration of Sentiments that they wrote was modeled directly on the Declaration of Independence.
Cunningham: And like the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments became the pivotal first document of their revolutionary movement.
It followed the entire structure of that 1776 document, except that instead of it being about all the ways the King of England had denied rights to America, it was about all the ways that men in America had been denying rights to women.
Miller: What they were basically saying was that the United States needed to live up to the standards that it had set for itself.
Cunningham: When Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the Declaration of Sentiments in that church in Seneca Falls, on a hot July day 72 years after the Declaration of Independence was written, the words that rang out at the beginning had a familiar but slightly different sound. She said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
Then a bit later, she goes on:
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
“He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
"He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice…”
The wrongs goes on and on, she keeps listing them, until at last at the end of the list of grievances, she says:
“He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
Eventually, copies of this Declaration of Sentiments spread across the country. News of the convention spread, too -- some of it not so great.
Miller: There were some articles in the press that made fun of it. The idea that women would vote was just considered ridiculous.
Cunningham: And it wasn’t just men who mocked it. Even some women at the time found the idea just absurd. But the meeting had set something in motion. Conventions began cropping up in other cities across the nation, including the first National Women’s Rights Convention, which was held in Massachusetts in 1850. More than 1,000 people attended that one, and it turned into an annual meeting.
One of the speakers there was a woman named Sojourner Truth. She was a former slave who became a prominent voice uniting the abolitionist movement and the women’s movement, highlighting the similarities of these two human struggles for liberation and equality.
Miller: So gradually the movement for women's rights, which was kind of an outre thing, moved gradually, gradually, gradually towards the middle. It began to be something that a larger number of women could support.
Cunningham: But then as these efforts start gaining steam, civil war breaks out.
Miller: And this generated a kind of turbulence in the women's rights movement, because women sort of were asked -- or kind of began to feel themselves-- that they should momentarily put aside their own concern for women's rights and instead work for the movement to end slavery.
It just refocused people's energies in a different direction. You know women who might have been involved in the movement for women's rights were now nursing at the front, that sort of thing. And the struggle over whether slaves ought to get the vote before women kind of fracture the movement.
And this opens up a very ugly side of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because what she basically said is: Why should black men have the vote before white women? And implicit in that is her belief that white women are superior to black men. I mean, that is how she felt.
So she basically was opposed to the 15th Amendment that gave former slaves the right to vote. And not everyone agreed with her on that point. Lydia Maria Child was among those who did not agree with her on that point.
She was a very controversial figure and she said some pretty ugly things, not only about former slaves but also about immigrants. Basically her position was: Why should these rabble be allowed to vote just because they're men, when these refined, educated, white American-born women can't? She said that. So we don't have to like her, but she is a complicated figure.
Cunningham: This splintering of the movement ultimately resulted in two separate women’s suffrage organizations, both started in 1869 after the chaos of the Civil War was over. This was also the same year that the 15th amendment was passed by Congress, giving men of any race the right to vote.
One suffrage group was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a close friend of hers in the women’s rights movement: Susan B. Anthony. The other group was started by Lucy Stone.
As a national suffrage movement was coalescing, there were also efforts at the local level to get women the right to vote. And the first victories were in the west -- the Wyoming territory gave women the right to vote in 1869, and Utah in 1870.
Miller: One of the phenomena of American history in the 19th century was Western movement. Great areas of the continent that had been territories gradually became states, as they fulfill the requirements of statehood. And as some of these western states wrote their constitutions, they gave women the right to vote.
The Homesteading Act was passed during the Civil War and it gave people a right to settle on land, and if they improved it they could have it, basically. Women were not excluded from this, and there were women homesteaders. So if you think of the kind of people who are settling in the West, these are younger people, they're really adventurous people and they're willing to entertain new ideas.
Cunningham: And while these more grassroots efforts at suffrage are taking place, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are also finding other ways to draw attention to the cause.
In the election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony went to the polls in New York and cast a vote -- hoping to make the point that the 14th amendment should provide equal rights to all citizens, including voting rights for women. She was arrested, and when her case went to the circuit court, she was found guilty.
The judge -- Judge Hunt -- gave her the chance to speak only after the decision came down. He said: “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?”
And Anthony stood up and said: “Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex are, by your honor’s verdict, doomed to political subjection under this so-called form of government.”
The judge then starts cutting her off and telling her to sit down. She keeps going, delivering line after powerful line. Finally he says: “The court must insist -- the prisoner has been tried according to the established forms of law.”
And she says: “Yes, your honor. But by forms of law all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women.”
The verdict stays guilty. But Anthony refuses, for the rest of her life, to ever pay the fine. By 1890, the two suffrage groups mend their differences and form a single big organization: the National American Woman Suffrage Association. This would carry the movement into the 20th century.
Miller: What started at Seneca was really a very significant social movement that more than half the population alive today has benefited from. In other words, all the things that we women do today -- the professions we can enter, our ability to purchase real estate, to vote, to sit on juries -- these are things that came about not naturally, but as the result of many many efforts large and small by women over the course of the 19th and 20th century. And that is really still ongoing in various ways.
Cunningham: Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, "Step by step we shall undermine the present form of civilization and inaugurate the mightiest revolution the world has ever witnessed."
Ellie Smeal: In the history books, they keep saying that women “got equality” or “got the vote.” That's how they usually phrase it: “got the vote.” We didn't “get” any vote. We fought for that. Woman sacrificed their lives for that vote.
Cunningham: Ellie Smeal is one of the most prominent leaders of the modern-day feminist movement. She served as the president of the National Organization for Women through the 1970s and ‘80s, and today she’s president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Smeal: Anthony and Stanton both lived a long life, but they never saw the vote. They were sure we'd win. Failure was impossible, Susan B. Anthony said.
Cunningham: Once both Anthony and Stanton had died -- leaving the fight to a new generation, and a new century -- one of the most important figures who took up the fight in the early 20th century was Alice Paul.
Alice Paul was a young suffragist -- and another quaker -- who grew up in New Jersey but then studied abroad in England in her twenties. There, she got involved in the British suffrage movement, and she joined up with some of the country’s most radical and militant suffragists. They smashed windows, regularly got arrested, went on hunger strikes. Like with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul’s time in England was formative and cemented her indignation.
She came back to America in 1910, at 25-years old, and she immediately got involved in the National American Woman Suffrage Association that Anthony had previously led.
Alice Paul’s work with the organization brought her to Washington, D.C., to mobilize efforts for a national amendment that would finally give women the right to vote under the Constitution. But by that point, the organization had started focusing more on local efforts -- for example, securing the right to vote in state constitutions -- since that was proving a bit more promising than actually bringing about a national change.
But Alice Paul was dedicated to a Constitutional amendment. This introduced yet another fracture in the women’s movement. And by 1916, Paul and a number of other suffragists started their own National Woman’s Party.
They used aggressive, insistent tactics to draw the fight into the spotlight, including marches where they ended up attacked by men and relentless picketing outside the White House while Woodrow Wilson was president.
Smeal: They got arrested in front of the White House. And she made sure there were a lot of famous people on the line that got arrested. She understood that if she had famous women on that line who got arrested, it would be a lot more impactful. So they did. And then when they got arrested and thrown in jail, they went on a hunger strike.
Cunningham: The hunger strike resulted in Paul being confined to a psychopathic ward of the jail and force fed with tubes. The news of her treatment -- and the treatment of other imprisoned suffragists -- triggered backlash against the president, and inspired sympathy for the women’s cause.
Smeal: To me it was one of the breakthroughs of that suffrage movement.
Cunningham: It led to a desired effect: President Wilson declared his support for an amendment giving women the right to vote.
He made that announcement in 1917, and then a year later he addressed the Senate right before they were supposed to vote on the amendment. World War I was raging, and Wilson said:
“We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” And then he went on: “I regard the extension of suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.”
He said all this, but then the Senate came up two votes shy of passing it. A year later, it came back for a vote; and this time both the House and Senate successfully passed the 19th amendment.
It then went to the states for ratification. A bunch of states immediately ratified it: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, New York. But others shot it down: Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi. It essentially came down to Tennessee. And Tennessee’s legislature was split over what to do. But at the very last moment, a young legislator cast the tie-breaking vote after his mom begged him to pass the amendment for women’s voting rights.
And then: It was done. The amendment finally had support from the required three-quarters of the states and it was ratified on August 18th, 1920. The amendment for women’s suffrage, called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, officially became part of the U.S. Constitution.
But that was not the end of Alice Paul’s plan.
Smeal: She realized that the suffrage amendment itself was not enough. It was not full equal rights. And she then became convinced that we needed an equal rights amendment. She works literally the rest of her life on it.
Cunningham: The 19th amendment had only allowed women the right to vote. There was still nothing in the Constitution that ensured -- beyond just voting -- that men and women had equal rights and protection under the law.
In July of 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention, Alice Paul announced her push for an Equal Rights Amendment. The original words of it, which she drafted, stated simply:
“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.”
That was it. Simple. She named it the Mott Amendment, after the co-organizer of Seneca Falls -- Lucretia Mott.
But although it was introduced in Congress in 1923, it didn’t go anywhere for a long time. And some of this had to do with the fact that there women initially who were reluctant to support it.
Smeal: Well it wasn't just any old women by the way that we're worried about it. It was women who had fought for labor rights for women. At the turn of the century, at the same time we were going forth for the vote, a lot of social justice women were very concerned about working conditions. They passed a law against child labor, for example, and they passed laws to protect women workers. And they were fearful that if this amendment passed that these protective legislation would go down.
Cunningham: Eleanor Roosevelt was among the women who didn’t support it at first, since she had such strong ties to the labor movement. But Alice Paul persisted.
Smeal: She never was fearful of that, because she realized that women were being exploited because we didn't have equal rights.
Cunningham: The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, started being introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 onward, but it rarely reached the floor for a vote. In the 1940s, it gained some new momentum. Alice Paul rewrote the amendment slightly to use language more similar to the 15th and 19th amendments -- saying that equal rights can’t be denied based on sex. Then the Republican party added the ERA to its platform. Following that, the Democratic party did too, though there was still some split over it among labor groups.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, its fate -- and support for it -- bobbed back and forth. But as the civil rights movement swelled, the ideal of equal rights spilled over to the women’s movement. Just as more than a century before the abolition movement had inspired and fueled women like Stanton and Mott and Anthony.
Smeal: A lot of us who were active in the civil rights movement, a lot of women, wanted to finish the job also for equal rights for women. We owe the Civil Rights Movement tremendous debt because not only did we work as a part of the civil rights movement, we learned a lot from it. But it was more than that. It gave you the spirit that you can do it.
Cunningham: Out of this, the National Organization for Women was formed in 1966 -- which Ellie Smeal, speaking here, would go on to lead.
Smeal: We didn't think you could lose anything. Loss was not even in our thought process. Of course we were going to get equal rights. Every major women's group was behind it, including labor, which by then they’d recognized that any kind of so-called protection laws were no longer needed -- and in fact, were used against women workers and an excuse to pay them less.
Cunningham: In 1971, the amendment finally made it to the House floor for a vote, thanks to protests at the Capitol by the National Organization for Women -- and thanks to being sponsored and wrangled out of committee by Martha Griffiths.
Smeal: She's a congresswoman from Michigan. Remember, at this time there are very few women in Congress. Just a handful.
Cunningham: And the amendment was being blocked by a congressman, Emanuel Celler -- a democrat from New York who was the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
Smeal: So to go around the committee structure, which was stronger in those days by the way than today, you had a discharge petition which 218 members of Congress had to sign -- of the House -- which is a majority.
Cunningham: Griffiths gathers all the signatures, with the help of Ellie Smeal here and the National Organization for Women. They get enough names, and once it goes to the House floor for a vote: The amendment passes.
Smeal: Then the next battle becomes the battle to get it out of the Senate. And it wasn't easy. Believe me. You had Senator Ervin from North Carolina leading the charge against us.
And basically we do everything you can think of, one of which was a silent vigil on the steps. We stay there. I never wanted to do another silent vigil. You’re there 24 hours a day. You are not allowed to talk. This is ridiculous.
Cunningham: But it helped. In 1972, with votes from both the House and the Senate, the Congress finally, fully, officially passed the Equal Rights Amendment. It had a lot of resistance, especially from Congressman Emanuel Celler and Senator Sam Ervin who both try to kill it but only succeed in putting a deadline on it. They weren’t able to stop its passage.
Smeal: I was there when we passed it. And we we’re, I’ll tell you, ecstatic. I mean people had worked on this for three generations. We get it out and we couldn't wait till we ran to the national woman’s party headquarters which is right there on Capitol Hill.
Cunningham: Because there, at the National Woman’s Party headquarters, was 87-year-old Alice Paul.
Smeal: There's a big party, the whole place is mobbed with people, and no Alice Paul. I can’t figure it out. Where is she? And one of our people from Pittsburgh told me that she's in that room where Susan B. Anthony's desk is. There's a room there. But, she says, she's crying. And I thought you know maybe she’s just crying from joy or whatever. Anyway we go back to talk to her, and we're all ecstatic, right? And she's crying, and she said: No, you don't understand. Sam Ervin just did a trick on us.
She was just enraged over the fact, upset over the fact, that there had been a time limit put on -- a time limit for ratification. And we said: Don't worry. And she said: No, no, no, that's a trick.
She had studied the ratification of amendments. And if you don't get it passed in about 18 months, it bogs down.
Cunningham: The time limit that had been set for the states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was seven years.
Smeal: Seven years. It seems like you have time, but you allow your opposition to build.
Cunningham: And that’s what happened. Several states ratify it immediately --
Smeal: I mean Hawaii passes it almost before the ink is dry on its passage.
Cunningham: But then, just as Alice Paul predicted, after about 18 months it got really hard to persuade the other states that have dallied, because opposition had begun to mobilize.
In order for it to become part of the Constitution, 38 states needed to ratify the amendment. Twenty-two states had ratified it in the first year. Twenty-nine by the second year. Then it starts crawling. Very, very slowly, five more states ratify it, bringing the total to 34.
The deadline for ratification is approaching. And they have four states still left to go.
Alice Paul is now 92-years old in a nursing home in New Jersey, and leaders from the National Organization for Women go to visit her and they say: What should we do? We’re running out of time.
Smeal: And she said: Go to Indiana. And we do. That was it.
Cunningham: They spend about two years organizing all sorts of grassroots efforts there. They help to get new state representatives and state senators elected, so that the ERA has a shot at ratification in the new session. They also organize demonstrations and marches.
Smeal: We were going to have a big march, and it was January and it's a snowy day. Terrible day. And we said we're marching anyway -- and we marched in a blizzard.
Cunningham: It all pays off. They get almost all the votes they need. The state senate was just locked 25 to 25. And then after a phone call from First Lady Rosalynn Carter, one of the senators switched his vote. In 1977, Indiana became the 35th state to ratify.
But it was also the last. Just a few months after Indiana’s ratification, Alice Paul dies. Activists continue the fight. They go to Nevada. To Florida.
Smeal: They kept saying that the reason it was losing was local, it was the states. But then when we saw our opposition -- not only was I traveling, we saw opposition traveling -- we knew we were not in a local fight. We were in a national fight. And we knew that we had tremendous business opposition, because equal pay is a slogan now but it means money when you get an adult person who is educated and has all the qualifications to work for less simply because she’s a woman.
Cunningham: In state capitols around the country, the votes for ratification keep coming up just a little bit short. And when the 1979 deadline to ratify finally arrives, they’re still three states shy.
They even get another extension of a couple years, yet still can’t pick up any more states.
But how binding was that first, or even second, deadline?
The Constitution doesn’t say anything about establishing time limits for ratification, and it certainly doesn’t provide any guidance on what happens if a deadline is set and then not met.
So the legitimacy of it is still being debated right now -- because there are those today renewing the fight to see our country finally pass the ERA.
Those pushing to get it passed see three possible options forward. 1. Start from scratch, putting forward a new amendment. 2. Get Congress to approve a current extension to the timeline. Or 3. Just renew the effort to get the remaining states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment -- and hope that Congress decides not to consider the original deadline binding, since it was only in the preamble to the amendment, not the text of the amendment itself.
All three of these strategies are simultaneously being pursued right now to see which one works fastest. Just recently, in fact, the third strategy -- of charging forward to gather the final three state ratifications -- came one step closer. Just this past March, Nevada ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the 36th state to do so.
Smeal: The thing I'm so impressed by, what’s so exciting right now, is we just had the biggest marches and demonstrations in the history of the world -- the women's march of January 21, 2017. We counted them: 991 independent marches. Millions marching in our own country, not just in the big cities but the Knoxville, Tennessees and the Erie, Pennsylvanias. Every little city you can think of almost. As all these things are happening, very quietly but very assuredly there is an equal rights movement living and moving.
Because the passion for women to have equality is even greater today than it ever has been. It's almost not measurable. And again it's being thwarted but it won't last. I'm so confident it will pass. And the tragedy is we don't get these things behind us. of course we're equal. Of course. Well, our country should recognize that.
It isn't a symbol. Believe me. We have never said women are equal and should be treated as such. We don't have the full force of the law.
Cunningham: So this is where we are today. In the midst of an ongoing effort for equal rights in America that goes as far back as the formation of America itself.
There’s no way to end a story that has no ending yet. No way to neatly gather up the lives of Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, and tie a bow around everything that has led us to where we are now.
There is no bow here. Just threads that weave together the lives of half the population over the country’s entire history.
But over time, perhaps, those threads form a rope that we can hold onto -- to tug ourselves into the future, on the strength of our past.
[END OF EPISODE]
Cunningham: Many thanks to this week’s guests: Julie Miller, a historian in the manuscripts division at the Library of Congress; and Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Fief and drum music is by Other Turner and the Rising Star Fief and Drum Band. Special thanks to Sharde Thomas and the rest of the Turner family for its use.
Our theme music and additional compositions are by Ryan and Hays Holladay. The original artwork for our podcast is by Michelle Thompson. And, as always, thank you to Ted Muldoon--my producer here at The Washington Post.
If you like the show, please rate and review us on whatever platform you’re listening to this. And if you want to tell me personally what you’re thinking of the series, I would love that. You can find me on Twitter at @lily_cunningham.
This episode marked the last episode in our “we the people” chapter. Next, we move on to exploring the idea of a “more perfect union.” Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for more episodes of Constitutional.