The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who has been left out of the history of the Equal Rights Amendment battle? Men.

The popular story of the ERA pits women against women, but it’s incomplete.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), joined from left by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional Democrats, holds up a copy of the Constitution during an event about their resolution to remove the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment., Feb. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

For the first time in decades, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has new life. In recent years, supporters have gathered the three additional state ratifications the amendment theoretically needed for incorporation into the Constitution. In March, the House passed a measure that would set aside the 1982 deadline for ratification. That measure is currently sitting in the Senate where Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recently commented that he believes it might be possible to get enough Republican support to secure passage. Of course, enshrining the ERA in the Constitution also will require the Supreme Court to allow Congress to waive the deadline after the fact.

Yet, as hope for the ERA grows, it is crucial that we get the history right, notably the role that men have played in influencing the ERA’s trajectory. Popular depictions of the ERA battle — notably those in the recent TV miniseries “Mrs. America” — portray it as a debate among women over different conceptions of womanhood or motherhood. But at the core, it has been a fight over how best to ensure sexual equity and whether sex should play a role in determining a citizen’s rights — something far easier to see when men get reinserted into the story.

In fact, men have always been significantly involved on both sides of the ERA conflict. This is most evident in the earliest years of the struggle — long before Phyllis Schlafly and her fellow conservative women entered the state ratification battles of 1970s and early 1980s and stopped the ERA in its tracks.

Take, for example, the key role of legal scholar Albert Levitt, who helped Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and the main author of the ERA, craft the very first version of the amendment in 1921. Although Levitt eventually disagreed with Paul over the language of the ERA introduced in Congress in 1923, he did help to push Paul toward the idea of pursuing a constitutional amendment to ensure women’s status as full citizens.

Then there was Rep. Louis Ludlow (D-Ind.). In the 1930s, Ludlow helped the NWP revamp its strategy to persuade more members of Congress to back the amendment. Rather than pushing for public hearings on the proposal, they focused on holding small, private meetings with key members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Private meetings avoided the public attention that came from large and prolonged congressional hearings, which Ludlow and the NWP leaders realized gave ERA critics a platform to launch a counterattack. Thanks to the persistent efforts of the NWP and the steadfast advocacy of the ERA from Ludlow, the amendment began to steadily build support in Congress with subcommittees reporting it favorably almost every year between 1936 and 1948.

The ERA’s support among men came from both parties and across the political spectrum. In the late 1930s, for example, the amendment gained support from a prominent conservative New Deal critic, Sen. Edward Burke (D-Neb.). Burke, and other conservative amendment backers, supported the ERA because they believed that sex-specific labor laws infringed on women’s economic rights by restricting their ability to find employment. Partly due to Burke’s influence as the chair of the Senate subcommittee on the ERA, the full Senate Judiciary Committee voted to report the amendment to the Senate floor for the first time in history in March 1938.

Prominent left-wing men such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second vice president, Henry Wallace, and Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) joined with these conservatives in support of the ERA — though for different reasons. Wallace was the first member of Roosevelt’s administration to publicly issue an unqualified, straightforward endorsement of the amendment in January 1944, while Pepper fought for it on the Senate floor in 1946. Men like Wallace and Pepper envisioned the ERA as a way to ensure that social benefits and labor protections applied to men and women alike.

Yet, opposition to the ERA among men also crossed party and ideological lines. In 1921, lawyer, and soon-to-be influential Democratic foreign policy adviser, Dean Acheson had tried to offer Paul an alternative version of the ERA. His draft would have ensured the government’s ability to pass sex-specific legislation that protected women workers from economic exploitation and prioritized women’s traditional roles in the domestic sphere. After Paul rejected his draft, Acheson became a vehement critic of the ERA. He delivered one of the most impassioned testimonies against the amendment during the 1938 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearings. Acheson’s objections embodied liberal criticism of the ERA; opponents from the left wanted legislators to have the flexibility to pass sex-specific legislation that specifically protected women workers.

In the late 1940s, these liberals coordinated with conservative Rep. James Wadsworth (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) to advocate for the Women’s Status Bill, a measure deliberately designed to deflect the growing support for the ERA. Instead of full equality, this legislation promised a limited level that intended to recognize both men and women as rights-bearing citizens while keeping the rationale for sex-specific legal treatment intact.

Starting in 1950, another ERA critic, Sen. Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.) began attaching a rider to the amendment every time the ERA gained steam. Hayden’s proposal would protect sex-specific legislation that granted rights and privileges to women on the claim that all women were mothers or potential mothers — something he knew that ERA proponents found unacceptable. And so, attaching this language killed the bill. Similarly, for the majority of his decades-long tenure as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) refused to hold hearings or a vote on the amendment.

For more than a decade, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, these two wily legislators successfully stalled the ERA. Their efforts ensured that it did not receive meaningful congressional consideration again until 1970 when a re-energized women's movement helped to propel it forward.

In short, the history of the ERA is not simply a story about women who fought with each other, or different visions of womanhood and motherhood. Nor is it a simple story about men who refused to acknowledge women’s rights. When we look at how both men and women have worked to either push the ERA forward or to suppress it, we can see that a focal point of the conflict has centered on whether sex should play a role in determining a citizen’s rights.

While ERA supporters have argued that full constitutional sexual equality would allow citizens to function as individuals by not having their rights predetermined at birth on account of sex, ERA opponents have claimed that true sexual equity requires the law to be free to maintain separate and distinct rights for men and women citizens. By directly addressing how complete constitutional sexual equality will enhance everyone’s position — not harm it — ERA supporters may finally be able to push the amendment past the finish line.