Justice  /  Explainer

Why the Fight Over the Equal Rights Amendment Has Lasted Nearly a Century

Passage of the ERA seemed like a sure thing. So why did it fail to become law?

Should men and women have equal rights under the law in the United States? It’s a simple question with a seemingly simple solution—a Constitutional amendment that guarantees that equal rights shall not be abridged on the basis of sex. But as the thorny history of the Equal Rights Amendment shows, getting the nation to agree on whether to adopt such an amendment has proven endlessly complex.

It has taken nearly a century of fighting to come close to passing and ratifying the amendment. And though its adoption seems tantalizingly close, it could still be prevented by a quagmire of legal issues. Here’s why the Equal Rights Amendment has never been adopted—and how it became a controversial issue during the height of the feminist revolution of the 1970s thanks to an enormously influential political activist named Phyllis Schlafly.

The Equal Rights Amendment originated with suffragist Alice Paul.

Though the amendment is a modern-day buzzword, its passage has been a goal of women’s rights advocates since even before the Nineteenth Amendment, which affirmed women’s right to vote, was passed in 1920. Suffragist Alice Paul proposed the first version of the amendment in 1923. She called it the Mott Amendment in honor of Lucretia Mott, one of the founding mothers of the American suffrage movement. Its wording was simple: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

The wording may have been simple, but passing a constitutional amendment that guaranteed equal rights to women was anything but. Paul’s supporters proposed the amendment in every Congressional session between 1923 and the 1943, but it was never passed.

The proposed amendment underwent a change in wording in 1943.

Then, in 1943, she proposed a new amendment that used wording similar to the verbiage used in the Fourteenth Amendment. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” it read. Now known as the Alice Paul Amendment, it was introduced in every session of congress between 1943 and 1972.

In an effort to appease working-class opponents who feared the amendment would undo their years of attempts to protect women from discrimination under labor law, advocates of the amendment tried to add additional language that ensured the new amendment wouldn’t remove any existing protections specifically for women. But the core of the proposed amendment remained the same through the 1970s.