Equal Rights Amendment

Kathryn L. MacKay
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was first proposed in the United States Congress in December 1923. It was promoted by Alice Paul and National Women’s party, but opposed by many of their colleagues who had worked to pass the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage) in 1920. The ERA would have eliminated protective legislation which for years reformers had sought for female industrial workers. But Paul was determined that women should be treated as individuals under the law just as men were, not as a class subject to mass governmental regulation.

However, it was not until 1972 that a version of ERA was passed by the Senate and sent on to the states for ratification. By then the Legacy of the 1960s revolution in civil rights seemed to assure the amendment’s passage. Indeed, twenty-two states ratified it that first year. Most of these were states which had already resolved in favor of women’s rights by enacting equal protective labor legislation for men and women.

But with revolutions come counterrevolutions. By 1977 only thirteen additional states had ratified and five states had voted to rescind. Despite an extension of time until 10 June 1982, proponents of ERA could not achieve the necessary thirty-eight state ratifications. National polls consistently showed the majority of Americans in favor of the amendment. However, opponents—who ranged from the John Birch Society and Phyllis Shafley’s STOP ERA, to conservatives throughout the political spectrum of Protestant-Catholic-Mormon-Jews—combined successfully to defeat the amendment.

The attack against ERA seemed, at times, alarmist and hysterical. Equation of ERA with sexual permissiveness, abortion, child care, homosexuality, and unisexuality drew the debate away from the constitutional principle of equality to issues of “traditional family values.” But the attack did reflect the fears of many about the changing roles of women and men and about the changing form of the family. There seemed to be danger in equality for the ideological/cultural concept of the father as head and provider, mother as nurturer and manager, and children as replicas into the next generation. Many feared the equality would make women more vulnerable and exposed, that men would feel freer to abandon family responsibilities.

Certainly it was these fears which prompted Mormon church leaders to eventually join their financial resources, their promotional skills and their far-flung network of members to the counterrevolution. Church leaders in 1976 described ERA as “a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family as individual members as a whole.” President Spencer Kimball declared it “would strike at the family, humankind’s basic institution.”

Donations to support the anti-ERA effort were solicited by ward bishops; speeches against the amendment were deemed appropriate at all church meetings, and church buildings were used as an anti-ERA literature distribution points. Church sponsored anti-ERA organizations operated in Florida, Nevada, North and South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and Arizona.

In Utah, the attack against ERA had begun when the amendment was first considered by the Utah legislature in 1973. Taking most supporters by surprise, a John Birch Society-backed organization (HOTDOG) lobbied successfully against ratification. The amendment went down to defeat again in 1975 despite a more vigorous campaign by supporters. By then opposition to ERA had intensified and expanded.

Women had been granted suffrage in Utah territory in 1896 as part of a campaign against the practice of polygamy. And Congress acted in 1886 to deny women suffrage as part of the same effort. But when Utah entered the Union in 1896 the state constitution contained a hard-fought for provision for woman suffrage and statement which seemed to be an ERA provision: “Both male and female citizens of the State shall enjoy equally all civil, political, and religious rights and privileges.” The provision, unlike the federal ERA, would seem to cover public and private conduct.

However, during the period of the ERA ratification struggles, the Utah Supreme Court never invalidated a statute based on ERA. The court’s understanding of the state ERA was that it served a narrow political purpose in 1896. Court rulings in family law cases in the 1970s emphasized traditional husband-wife relations and biological factors and reduced the state ERA to a nullity. In addition to the Utah court’s disdain for the ERA, the state legislature undertook no comprehensive statutory review to gender neutralize the state code. (Such a review was later made and a report on gender bias in the Utah court system was issued in 1990 by the “Utah Task Force on Gender and Justice.“) In 1978, when proponents of ERA knew they could not achieve thirty-eight state ratifications by 1979, they succeeded in gaining an extension of time. In the Congressional hearings on 15 August Senator Orrin Hatch squared off against a D.C. area housewife, Sonia Johnson, who had been born and raised in Logan, Utah, and was an active Mormon. Her feisty testimony in support of ERA caught media attention and Sonia became a lightning rod for Mormon and other religious supporters of equality. She was excommunicated from the Mormon church in December 1979.

The next years saw a series of reversals for ERA proponents. The Illinois legislature refused for the eighth time to ratify. The Republican party repudiated an ERA plank that had existed for forty years. ERA opponent Ronald Reagan was elected president. In January 1981 a Nevada legislature in which Mormons figured prominently rejected the ERA thirty seconds after it was introduced.

With a touch of whimsy, NOW (National Organization for Women) sent teams of missionaries to Utah for the summer of 1981 to knock on doors of Mormons asking them to support the ERA. However, in 1982 the fifty-nine-year struggle for ERA came to an end, or at least to a long pause.

See: Linda Sillitoe and Paul Swenson, “A Moral Issue,” Utah Holiday Magazine 9 (January 1980); Rex E. Lee, A Lawyer Looks at the Equal Rights Amendment (1980); Mary Frances Berry, Why ERA Failed (1986); and Joan Hoff-Wilson, ed. Rights of Passage (1986).