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  • A Memory of Struggle
  • Eileen Boris (bio)

On July 9, 1978, arrayed in a long white dress, I marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, under a banner displaying the old suffrage colors of white, gold, and purple and emblazoned with the name of the new National Women’s Studies Association. I had joined with 100,000 women and some men, forming a multiracial sea of three hundred feminist, civil rights, labor, and liberal organizations, to demand an extension of time for ratification of the ERA. Congress had passed the ERA six years before to overwhelming bipartisan fanfare, but the seven-year deadline for three-quarters of the states to approve was fast approaching. It was the one-year anniversary of the death of Alice Paul, the National Women’s Party leader who first had introduced the ERA in the 1920s; the extension march stood as a fitting memorial. I was showing up for the making of history (Bennetts 1978b; DeWitt 1978).

When it came to past feminist heroines, I wasn’t much of a fan of the elite Alice Paul, who placed equal legal treatment of women and men above all other factors to combat inequality. She opposed affirmative action to overcome legacies of discrimination, restriction, and segregation on the job and in the home because special treatment gestured to women’s inferiority. In searching for a usable past, I preferred the earlier twentieth-century anarchist Emma Goldman, who advocated birth control and revolution, and the socialist Florence Kelley, who sought higher wages and the eight-hour day for working-class women. Nor was I a dedicated campaigner for the ERA. As a socialist feminist, I understood that constitutional equality with men under capitalism would leave intact structures of class and race privilege between women. I had only to look at which women seemed to be [End Page 282] benefitting disproportionately from Title VII’s antidiscrimination imperative won by the civil rights movement: twenty-something, middle-class, white women like myself without children who found the professions, the academy included, more open to our aspirations. Legal equality was nice to have, and so I would march that muggy summer day, but unless women could control our bodies, we couldn’t take advantage of even the limited promise of equality.

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Fig 1.

Eileen Boris (right foreground) at the March for Ratification of the ERA, Washington, DC, July 9, 1978.

Instead, I focused my political energies on what was emerging as a reproductive justice movement that called for the right to have as well as not to have children, under circumstances of adequate resources for mother work, with freedom from racialized sterilization abuse, and with access to child care. We denounced the export of population control abroad and supported struggles for community control at home. Safe and legal abortion, the Reproductive Rights National Network claimed, was only a first step; women needed social and economic conditions in which choice was meaningful. I was especially concerned with wages for housework, a provocation that made care legible as work, that shared with welfare rights activists the call for income as a recognition of the value of reproductive labors. Redeploying women’s labor history for current organizing, as I did [End Page 283] as part of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, was more in keeping with the materialist politics of the body that I embraced during the 1970s while the battle for the ERA raged.

But if my feminist tendency disassociated the ERA from the body, a resurgent political right insisted on connecting the two. The Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Republican operative who rode to prominence on her opposition to the ERA, raised the specter of unisex bathrooms, lesbianism, “homosexual” marriages, and women in combat. The ERA, she insisted, would ban single-sex colleges and force mothers into the workforce, taking away the right to be supported by a husband and thus abandoning divorced women to hardship without alimony (People 1975; Levenstein 2014, 1134–35). The National Conference of Catholic Bishops charged that the ERA would “pave the way for more abortions” (Herbers 1978). Said the President of the Charleston, South Carolina, Citizens...


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