by Sarah Langsdon, Head of Special Collections
Some of the questions that come to mind when talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, is what exactly does it say and why, in 2020, do we still need it? The amendment was first proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul. Alice was one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party that fought for the amendment to secure constitutional equality for women. The group proposed the amendment in every legislative session from 1923 until it was finally passed in 1972. So just what does the amendment say? It’s simple and to some, very vague. It states “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” When the amendment was passed, 35 states ratified it within the first year. Then came the battle for the last three states.
During the 1970s, the ERA was a very divisive issue among the population. Nationally, there was the National Organization of Women (NOW) led by Betty Friedan. Representative Shirley Chisholm advocated for the passage of the amendment in Congress stating that “The amendment is necessary to clarify countless ambiguities and inconsistencies in our legal system.” Discrimination against women, based solely on their sex, was so widespread that it just seemed to many normal, natural and right. On the opposite of the issue was Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly started the Schlafly Report where she provided the reasons why she felt the ERA would do more harm than good to the women in the United States. She advocated that the ERA would make it so husbands weren’t responsible to provide for their wives or children, that women would be equally financially responsible with most having to enter the workforce and that it would get rid of alimony. She argued this case across the country and even founded the Eagle Forum that became a conservative lobbying body.
When you look at the fight locally, there was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that spoke out against the passage of the amendment in Utah in the late 1970s. They argued that the 14th Amendment gave equality to women so the ERA was redundant. They also feared that the amendment would have a detrimental impact on the family. During this time, Sonia Johnson organized Mormons for ERA that advocated for Mormon women to see the value in the amendment and pressure for its passage. She testified in front of a state judiciary subcommittee about the amendment and even gave a scathing speech in New York at the American Psychological Association.
In Weber/Davis Counties, there was the ERA Coalition that was run by Beverly Dalley. Beverly became the spokesperson for the passage. She gave speeches, protested with the League of Women Voters at Temple Square, wrote to legislators and worked to try and get the amendment passed in Utah. She was devastated when it failed for the last time in the 1980s. Then there was HOTDOG. The group, Humanitarians Opposed to Degrading Our Girls, was Utah’s version of the anti-ERA movement. The group advocated for people to use their influence to make sure the amendment wasn’t passed. Patricia Madsen was a vocal member of the group. She approached the Layton City Council in the 1980s to use their political power against the amendment. She claimed that the amendment would force women to join the workforce, be draft, and even make rape no longer a crime.
Needless to say, by the time the extensions for ratification of the amendment passed in the mid-1980s, it still didn’t have the required 38 states. Since then, states have brought the issue back up in local legislatures and in 2019, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify. Now it is up to Congress and the courts to see if the amendment is still valid.
Trying to determine if the amendment is still needed is a tricky situation. Since the 1980s, there have been several laws passed that help to protect women and give them equal rights but there are still some problems remaining. After all, women still tend to get paid less than men and in some spheres are not seen as equal to men. I find it interesting that after 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, women are still fighting for their voices to be heard.