The new FX miniseries Mrs. America, officially out today, will tell the story of the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — bringing to light one fight for gender equality that has gone on for nearly 100 years. The nine-part series follows some of the biggest feminist activists of the 1970s — including Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Flo Kennedy — in their fight for women’s rights, and the right-wing efforts to stop them.
Mrs. America sheds a light on the culture wars of the 70s, which have in many ways shaped the world we still live in now. The ERA, which demanded individuals not be subjected to discrimination based on their gender, played a large role in the fight for equality in the U.S. While the amendment sought to equalize rights for all genders, opposition to it from conservative parties were strong. This included anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, who at the time claimed the women’s rights movement posed a threat to traditional family values.
So, what exactly is the ERA? The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposition that was actually introduced to Congress in the 1920s that would guarantee equal rights for all U.S. citizens regardless of sex. Although middle class women were largely supportive of the ERA in its early adaptation, it wasn’t until the women’s movement in the 60s that the amendment garnered real support. After being reintroduced to the House of Representatives in 1971, the ERA went on to pass through the House and move to the Senate for ratification. This is where the timeline of events around the constitutional amendment and the movement’s overall value became of greater prevalence in American history.
While the movement for gender equality has changed and grown over the years, the conservative movement at the time also helped to create the Republican Party as we know it today. The fight around the ERA is an important one in understanding today’s climate around gender justice, reproductive freedom, and the modern right wing. Ahead, we’ve detailed a complete timeline of events — from the ERA’s first trip to the Senate to where we stand today.
1923: The Equal Rights Amendment is introduced
In 1923, just three years after women won the right to vote, the Equal Rights Amendment was written by members of the National Women’s Party, which first formed in 1916. The document was written by Alice Paul, who founded the party, and was introduced at the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention. That same year, the ERA was first introduced in Congress.
Mid-1920s: The ERA fails to gain broad support
Even though the ERA was introduced to guarantee equal legal rights for all people — regardless of their gender — support for the document within the women’s movement itself was divided along class lines. Working class women were still fighting for labor protections and were concerned the ERA would threaten laws that made working conditions in factories safer.
1943: Alice Paul rewrites the ERA
Twenty years after she first introduced the document, Paul rewrote the ERA in 1943 to better reflect the language in the 15th and 19th Amendments, which granted the right to vote to Black men and women The new version, then called the Alice Paul Amendment, stated: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” But the labor movement would still not join the fight.
1950: The ERA is introduced in every Congressional session, but only gets passed once.
For the next 47 years — from 1923 to 1970 — the ERA was introduced into every session of Congress, but awaited a hearing on the floor, until 1946. However, the amendment was blocked in the Senate. Four years later in 1950, the Senate passed the ERA, but with language that would essentially nullify any meaningful impact.
1954-1964: The ERA gets an ally in the House
By 1954, when she was elected to the House, Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths had joined the fight to pass the ERA, and worked to have it added to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Movement at the time helped to kickstart a new wave of activism around women’s rights, and at this point, the labor movement had finally joined in on the demands to ratify the amendment.
1970: The National Organization for Women joins the fight
The National Organization for Women (NOW), which was founded in 1966, vowed to take on the fight to ratify the ERA. In February of 1970, twenty leaders of the feminist group disrupted hearings of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments and demanded the ERA be brought before all of Congress. Rep. Griffiths was instrumental in this effort, and filed a discharge petition to force the ERA to be heard by the full House. Her petition was successful and the ERA passed in the House, but was later killed in the Senate.
1972: The ERA passes, but the movement gains a new enemy
On March 22, 1972, the ERA passed in Congress and was then sent to the states for ratification. However, Congress also placed an arbitrary seven-year ratification deadline on the amendment. Because the ERA entered a new phase at this time, a religious right-wing movement in opposition to the amendment also started to gain steam, with conservative activist Phyllis Schafly launching the National Committee to Stop ERA. Within the first year, the ERA received support in 22 states, but that progress slowed due to right-wing campaigns.
1974-1977: States fail to approve the ERA despite the approaching deadline
Although 22 legislatures ratified the amendment in 1972 — with eight more joining the following year — only five more states approved the ERA over the course of three years, which advocates grew weary of as it approached the deadline. Following this, from the mid- to late-70s right-wing, anti-ERA groups had launched a full on assault on the Equal Rights Amendment in states across the country, as ERA advocates had a deadline to meet.
1978: Right-wing groups take the fight against ERA ratification nationwide
By 1978, ERA advocates became more militant in their demands for an extension of the ERA deadline, organizing pickets, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and a march of 100,000-plus supporters in Washington, D.C. in July of that year. As the deadline approached, New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman moved to extend the ratification deadline to June 30, 1928, but Congress remained divided on whether or not to allow this resolution to pass.
1980: Ronald Reagan is elected and there’s a massive push for conservatism in the U.S.
Ronald Reagan’s election win in 1980 solidified the country’s move to the conservative right, along with a push for traditional family values. After Illinois contested the ERA ratification extension, court battles continued, while the American people endured a paradigm shift under a new president.
1982: The ERA falls short, despite major protests
After receiving an extension for ratification, ERA supporters still missed the June 30, 1982 deadline, and was just three states shy of securing the necessary 38 states for full ratification. The House failed to pass on a vote of 278-147, the minority being against the ERA but still within the 2/3 limitation. But the struggle continued, as the amendment was reintroduced in Congress just two weeks later on July 14. During this time, a group of seven ERA supporters went on a fast and seventeen others chained themselves to the doors of Illinois’ Senate chambers in protest.
1985-1992: The fight for the ERA trudges on
For seven years, and even since, the Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced before every Congressional session and held in Committee. NOW’s vow to continue fighting for the movement has never wavered.
1995-1996: An ERA Strategy Summit creates new resolutions
According to NOW, the annual ERA Summit began in an effort to continue conversations around equality. The group convened to call for a new ERA, with new language that included concepts around reproductive rights, abortion, and non-discrimination on the basis of sexuality.
2017-Present: The ERA movement is once again revived
In the early 2000s, movement to ratify remained at an impasse, though the fight for ratification continues in 2020. In the last few years, the ERA has finally been ratified in 38 states, though the deadline has now expired. Nevada ratified the amendment in 2017, becoming the first state to ratify after the deadline passed followed by Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in January 2020. Virginia’s passing of the ERA made major headlines with final tallied vote of 27-12 in the Senate and 58-40 in the House, making them the 38th state to pass the amendment.
Now that this requirement has been met, the ERA will likely continue its long fight ahead, but supporters will not be backing down anytime soon. As depicted in the FX series Mrs. America, the ERA’s fight is far from over, and a new generation of equal rights supports continue to stress the imperativeness of ratifying it as soon as possible.
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