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The Equal Rights Amendment Reconsidered: Politics, Policy, and Social Mobilization in a Democracy
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In the early 1970s, fifty years after its first appearance in the U.S. Congress, the Equal Rights Amendment came the closest it ever would to ratification. The ERA declared: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." After sailing through Congress in 1972 with bipartisan support, the amendment went to the states for ratification. The response was positive and immediate: Hawaii approved the ERA the same day, twenty-one other states approved it before the end of the year, and eight more states the following year. Yet, by 1982 the amendment lay dead, having fallen three states short of the thirty-eight states needed for ratification.

This essay explores the close connection between constitutional change, public opinion, and political activism. The failure of the ERA is explained within a context of social mobilization that shifted public opinion over time. ERA ratification reveals the political dimensions of constitutional change. In this way, the ERA battle was a successful exercise in democratic mobilization, although it created profound acrimony at the time, as is fitting in a mature democracy.1 A close examination of social science survey literature, often ignored in earlier historical studies, shows that public opinion, particularly in key battleground states, shifted over time against ERA ratification. Opponents of ERA, working on the community and state levels, effectively won over public opinion to their side and, in doing so, prevailed upon their state legislators in battleground states to defeat the ERA. Social science surveys reveal that by 1978 there was a precipitous overall decline in support of the amendment among women in nonratifying states, plummeting below 40 percent. Political leadership working on both the national and local levels proved essential to the success of the anti-ERA movement. Furthermore, this essay posits that politics unique to individual states is critical to understanding the defeat of the ERA. For example, factionalism within the Democratic Party in Illinois—Mayor Richard Daley party regulars versus New Democrat reformers—benefited anti-ERA activists in that state. In the end, however, opponents of ERA ratification won over Democratic legislators in states controlled by the Democrats, including Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Missouri. More important, anti-ERA forces were more effective in mobilizing public opinion against ratification.

The interaction of these forces—public opinion, political climate, and social mobilization—are necessary to understand the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in particular and the amendment process in general.2 While the history of ERA is often seen as a policy failure, it is important to note that thirty-five states did ratify it, although five of these changed their minds and rescinded. The initial success of ERA ratification and its ultimate failure to win the necessary thirty-eight states indicates the importance of integrating this social science literature into a new historical narrative. Social science literature details how social mobilization by pro- and anti-ERA forces changed public opinion over time and affected voting outcomes in state legislatures.3

The proponents of ERA tended to see its defeat as a failure of democracy. Many supporters of ERA blamed the defeat of the amendment on the insurance industry, New Right organizations, and other special interests for providing funding for a well-organized, highly financed opposition that subverted the democratic process and the will of the majority. The defeat of ERA led, inevitably it seemed, to conclusions about the valetudinarian state of American democracy. By contrast, the opponents of the amendment claimed that victory was achieved because the average person, especially women, had been aroused by a maneuver on the part of a political elite—feminist organizations and their political supporters in Washington, D.C., and certain state capitals—to foist an out-of-the-mainstream amendment on the American people. Anti-ERA forces claimed that they represented the average American and that the defeat of ERA represented a victory for democracy.4

Scholars have offered many explanations as to why ERA failed. Early literature maintained that it failed ratification for what might be described as internal and external factors. The major internal factor included organization failure on the part of ERA...

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