After decades of dormancy, suddenly two state legislatures that had never previously ratified the ERA passed it: Nevada in March 2017 and Illinois in May 2018. At least on paper, advocates have moved tantalizingly close to passing the bill: Finally, after all this time, only one more state is needed to ratify the amendment. The process could be more complicated than that — some state legislatures that passed the measure in the 1970s later tried to rescind their actions, and whether those rescissions count remains unresolved. Additionally, there is the question of whether the deadline to ratify the amendment lapsing nullified earlier ratifications. Nonetheless, Virginia activists are hopeful the state will follow suit now that Democrats gained control of the state legislature.
Why has the ERA suddenly gained traction after nearly four decades of dormancy? There are many reasons, including new feminist organizing, but the biggest factor is that the most potent weapon against the ERA has fizzled. In the 1970s, anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly compellingly argued the amendment would harm families by destroying the male breadwinner-female homemaker household dynamic. Even though the ERA was stopped, Schlafly’s fear has actually come to pass anyway for reasons that remind us both of the amendment’s necessity and its inadequacy to solve what truly threatens American families.
At the time of the ERA debate, opponents argued that the legislation would eliminate men’s obligations to care for women and children. They abhorred the idea of women working outside the home, seeing it as something that should happen only out of absolute necessity, and warned ominously that feminism, perhaps bolstered by the ERA, could make this practice more prevalent.
These arguments proved potent because the breadwinner ideal remained a strong part of American allure, something that had been inculcated in popular culture and policy by both liberals with ties to organized labor and conservatives who believed fervently in the traditional nuclear family with divinely ordained and specific roles.
But even as they were capitalizing on this mythology in the ERA fight, opponents missed two crucial changes happening on the ground that gutted their vision of a society in which men were legally responsible to provide for wives and children and had the means to do so.
First, deindustrialization had already begun eliminating the family wage — a salary large enough to support a wife and children. In 1967, only 49 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 still stayed at home, and the rate of stay-at-home mothers was already on a rapid downward trajectory. Many women had to work outside the home for wages, whether they wanted to or not, and this practice was only growing more frequent, ERA or no ERA.
Additionally, judges, men’s rights activists and state legislators had just repealed most of women’s already scant legal safeguards in the home through no-fault divorce laws and court decisions.
Men had been held legally responsible for supporting their families only at the point of divorce, but as one state after another passed new no-fault divorce laws, or courts reinterpreted divorce laws, during the 1970s, they did away with this practice — sometimes despite objections from feminists. Alimony became a rare, and most significantly, temporary provision. There was even a smaller, but significant, dip in child support provisions as well. Especially in the 1970s and ’80s, fewer men paid child support, and often they paid less. Despite these less onerous obligations, the rate at which fathers stopped paying their child support still spiked.
As a result, divorced women in the 1970s and ’80s, paid significantly less than men for waged work, had substantially less help raising their children.
So at the same moment that ERA opponents were assailing its champions for threatening the breadwinner ideal, it was already crumbling through processes that were only unevenly visible at the time. These legal changes for example, were clearest to women who had been divorced.
Even though they couldn’t or wouldn’t see it, ERA opponents were fighting for something that was dying via a strategy that would not save it.
Today, the breadwinner-homemaker household is mostly gone. Although 29 percent of children in 2012 still had stay-at-home mothers, a third of those families were living in poverty. Homemakers are no longer the marker of a family’s success that they once were. Few American workers earn a wage that could support this family formation. Even some family wage earners have spouses who want to work. For them, the breadwinner-homemaker household division of labor is not something to mythologize or desire.
Therefore, out of changed desires, law and necessity, fewer Americans find the ERA to be a threat to their way of life than they did in the 1970s and early ’80s.
What does this mean? First, passage of the ERA is a real possibility.
Even after years of gains, it is still necessary to enshrine equal protection for sex in the Constitution. It will compel the Supreme Court to apply strict scrutiny to laws affecting men and women differently as the court does to laws that have racially disparate effects. More protection is increasingly urgent in the face of doubts that the current conservative Supreme Court will adequately protect women’s rights. Although these arguments present a compelling case for supporting the ERA, the case opposing the amendment is a shadow of what it once was when it could be linked to the gendered breadwinner ideal.
Equally important, however, American families are under threat as opponents of the ERA (and their feminist opponents) warned, but it is liberals, not conservatives who possess the prescriptions to protect them.
Conservatives used fears about the harm to families to smear feminists and defeat the ERA in the 1970s. Although conservative goals and strategies were often disingenuous, they exploited very real fears about the family.
These fears still exist, not because of the ERA, but because the true threat to American families is a lack of resources, and that threat has only gotten worse with time. The number of two-worker families and single-parent households has exploded, leaving the burden of caring for children, the elderly, disabled family members and other dependents even more on those with the fewest resources to handle this enormous burden — married and unmarried women, single parents and the poor.
The deepest problem with the breadwinner-homemaker model was not just that it was always more myth than reality, but rather that the model was always inferior to one in which families are provided a full safety net by policy and by right. Equality within American families requires far more than an ERA: investments in universal child-care, paid paternity and maternity leave, more help for elder care, a stronger Family and Medical Leave Act and universal health care. Only then will all Americans have the resources to adequately care for their families and thrive.