Integrating Women into Modern Kentucky History: The Equal Rights Amendment Debate (1972–1978) as a Case Study
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Integrating Women into Modern Kentucky History:
The Equal Rights Amendment Debate (1972–1978) as a Case Study

In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a bill that guaranteed equality for women. In order for the ERA to become a constitutional amendment, it had to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures around the country. While feminists found hope in this federal move to grant women equality with men, many other women opposed the ERA on the grounds that federal power threatened to undermine their state’s government and to inflict drastic social change upon them. Kentucky ratified the ERA in 1972, but a movement, led mostly by conservative women, soon emerged that called for the legislature to rescind the ratification.

This essay will examine the conflict around the Equal Rights Amendment in Kentucky during the 1970s, concentrating on women on both sides of the issue. In doing so, this essay will demonstrate that Kentucky women’s history should be understood as a way to address central concerns about government, power, and rights. Kentucky women’s history need not be treated as a separate subfield cataloguing feminist accomplishments only, to be dealt with once other historio-graphical areas are fleshed out more fully. Treating women’s history as an afterthought, rather than a component of a central narrative, has led to a long neglect of the stories of Kentucky women, particularly [End Page 477] those engaged in political activism that did not involve running for elective office or implementing reforms intended to aid the poor.

Only a handful of articles have been written on the subject of mid-to-late-twentieth-century women’s political activism in the Bluegrass State. Historians have repeatedly noted that the coverage of Kentucky women’s history in general is sparse.1 The scholarship that exists tends to focus on the periods prior to and including the Progressive era.2 Typically, Kentucky women’s history celebrates the accomplishments of elite white women who had previously been left out of history texts on the state, an approach known as “compensatory” or “contributory” scholarship.3 When considering the state of the field, one is struck by the complete lack of a recent, scholarly survey.4 [End Page 478]

The historiography on women in twentieth-century Kentucky needs development in all areas. Given the many social and political movements of significance after 1920, scholars should study women’s political activities to determine how national trends played out at the local level and how local activities impacted the nation. To this end, some of the most analytically sophisticated work of late comes out of the field of Appalachian studies, which for some reason is not typically included in Kentucky historiography.5 For example, Sally Ward Maggard’s work on women in Appalachian Kentucky demonstrates the national impact of local women’s union activity. Offering a fascinating corrective to standard labor histories of eastern Kentucky, Maggard argues that the analytical categories of gender, class, and race are of crucial importance in understanding the complexities of women’s strike activity. In the end, Maggard emphasizes that including gender, race, and class in an analysis of the Pikeville hospital strike in the 1970s “allows a deeper understanding of the exercise of power … [and] the perpetuation of powerlessness.”6 [End Page 479]

In a similar but more hopeful vein, a unique essay on the Appalachian Women’s Alliance (AWA) narrates the twenty-year history of an explicitly feminist, grassroots women’s organization that built a coalition of diverse women in order to combat homophobia, racism, poverty, and domestic violence. In the essay, class tensions are to the fore in the discussion of one of the most difficult and painful aspects of Appalachian women’s experience—middle-class female reformers being perceived as competitive, exploitative, and downright “mean.”7 The revelation of intense class tensions points to the need for more work on non-elite women’s history, as much of Kentucky women’s history concentrates on middle- and upper-class white female reformers and their work. How did the people that such reformers imagined that they were helping experience the transaction? If groups similar to the...