Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Equal Rights Amendment was intended to ensure women’s right to equal treatment under the law in the United States. Passage of the amendment succeeded suffrage as a major goal of the American women’s movement.

Summary of Event

After the passage in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, many women who had worked for the amendment’s ratification disengaged from political activity. However, some realized that although women could vote, they still faced many obstacles to real freedom. Among other things, women did not have the same educational opportunities as men, economic independence, or access to information about family planning. Equal Rights Amendment Women;Equal Rights Amendment [kw]Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment (Dec. 10, 1923) [kw]Equal Rights Amendment, Proposal of the (Dec. 10, 1923) [kw]Rights Amendment, Proposal of the Equal (Dec. 10, 1923) [kw]Amendment, Proposal of the Equal Rights (Dec. 10, 1923) Equal Rights Amendment Women;Equal Rights Amendment [g]United States;Dec. 10, 1923: Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment[05900] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 10, 1923: Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment[05900] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 10, 1923: Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment[05900] [c]Women’s issues;Dec. 10, 1923: Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment[05900] Paul, Alice

As people began to address these concerns, issues that had been put aside during the push for suffrage started to come to the surface. Some women, mainly members of the National Woman’s Party National Woman’s Party[National Womans Party] (NWP), believed in complete equality between women and men; others, primarily those associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), believed that there were some areas in which women needed special protective legislation. In the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon, Muller v. Oregon (1908) the U.S. Supreme Court had stated:

The two sexes differ in structure of body, in the functions to be performed by each, in the amount of physical strength, in the capacity for long-continued labor, particularly when done standing. . . . This difference justifies a difference in legislation, and upholds that which is designed to compensate for some of the burdens which rest upon her.

Although this decision protected some women, it proved discriminatory in many cases. Because of the assumption that women were weaker and more vulnerable than men, women were prohibited from practicing certain professions, such as law, even when they were fully qualified to do so. Discrimination;gender-related[gender related] They were forbidden to lift weights, even those no heavier than an eighteen-month-old child. Women were forbidden to serve in bars at night, although they were able to work as cleaners or entertainers at the same hour.

These issues, which had been submerged while the women’s movement focused on suffrage, now became increasingly important. The women’s movement, which had been so united before 1920, began to show factions among its members, dividing into groups such as pacifists, social feminists, and professional women.

It was into this dilemma that Alice Paul stepped. Born in 1885 of Quaker parents in Moorestown, New Jersey, she had graduated from Swarthmore College in 1905. She went as a student to England, where she had been an active participant in the British woman suffrage movement. A woman of strong will and ambition, Paul adopted the militant techniques of the British suffragists. In 1913, she broke with the NAWSA, which had always lobbied state legislatures, and founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage to work with the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. This group eventually became known as the National Woman’s Party. In 1917, Paul and the NWP organized around-the-clock picketing of the White House, and, as a result, Paul was arrested and jailed. Such actions received international press coverage and were ultimately good for the cause of woman suffrage, but they also left Paul thousands of dollars in debt and without the physical stamina to continue.

However, many women realized that the time was ripe for further action, and they also realized they needed Paul’s leadership. A ceremony was planned at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 15, 1921, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, both to celebrate women’s right to vote and to launch a campaign for the removal of legal disabilities of women. Representatives of more than one hundred women’s organizations attended the ceremony; the only group noticeably absent was the NAWSA, which complained that the NWP was unconcerned about the problems of working women (the NAWSA believed that factory women, for example, still required special legislation). The idea of the Equal Rights Amendment was conceived during this convention.

Paul took a leave of absence from the NWP to earn a law degree. She received an LL.B. from Washington College of Law in 1922, an LL.M. in 1927, and a DC.L. in 1928 from American University in Washington. In 1923, the NWP again held a convention, this time in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first Women’s Rights Convention had been held in 1848. In memory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, Paul presented a proposal, originally called the Lucretia Mott Amendment: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The proposal was not unanimously accepted. As before, there was a concern that it would invalidate all protective legislation for women, especially laws regarding labor. Paul, however, believed that most protective legislation only furthered discrimination against women. If the women had been able to compromise on these issues, perhaps they could have strengthened their ranks and consolidated their new power, but such was not to be.

Although the majority of women supported the protectionists, the proposed text of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress on December 10, 1923. It read simply:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Paul decided that the next step for the National Woman’s Party would be to elicit the support of other women’s groups. The NWP conducted studies to determine the legal positions of women in individual states in relation to divorce, marriage, child custody, work, education, family planning, and career opportunities. The party also planned to reveal the fundamental inadequacy of protectionist legislation. The members lobbied to get representation on an investigative panel of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Woman’s Bureau, which met in January, 1926. However, the gap between the goals of the NWP and the attitudes of the rest of the country widened, and antagonisms prevented any progress. In November, 1928, the Woman’s Bureau panel found that legislative protection was good for women.


Despite the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the decade of the 1920’s was in many ways antifeminist. Women were not considered capable of combining marriage and career. Feminists were attacked as unfeminine and asexual. Freudian theories, which saw women as either temptresses or slaves, were popular. Feminism did not appeal to many women of the younger generation, who rebelled against the repressive, Victorian culture identified with the older generation, which had given birth to the ERA. Despite this milieu, in 1928 the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs expressed its support of the ERA. Gradually, more groups promoted it. The ERA was publicly championed by the Republican Party in 1940, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1943, and the Democratic Party in 1944.

Not until 1959, however, did the NAWSA, which by then had become the League of Women Voters, support the amendment. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, feminist activity was rekindled, and in 1972, the ERA passed the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. According to law, it then had seven years to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. In her later years, Alice Paul dedicated all her time to passage of the ERA. She died in 1977, still hoping for its passage. Although Congress extended the deadline to 1982, and many states did ratify the amendment, time ran out, and the ERA did not become law. Equal Rights Amendment Women;Equal Rights Amendment

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Jean H. Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists. New York: Hill & Wang, 2005. Discusses the lives and work of the five most prominent activists in the U.S. suffrage movement: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. Blends personal information on the subjects with political and historical analysis. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996. Sound standard account of the American women’s rights movement. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammer, Roger A. American Woman: Hidden in History, Forging the Future. 2d ed. Golden Valley, Minn.: Place in the Woods, 1993. A concise collection of stories about women, both contemporary and historical, including Alice Paul. Illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1928. 1986. Reprint. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2000. Focuses on Paul’s role in the suffrage movement and examines the importance of the NWP in continuing the fight for gender equality after American women had won the right to vote.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pole, J. R. The Pursuit of Equality in American History. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Includes discussion of the divisions that arose among American women after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Carolyn. “The Growth of the Modern Women’s Movement.” In Changing Our Power: An Introduction to Women’s Studies, edited by Jo Whitehorse Cochran, Donna Lengston, and Carolyn Woodward. 2d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1991. Describes what happened to the ERA and how it was defeated.

Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Categories: History