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  • The Equal Rights Amendment and the Rise of Emancipationism, 1932–1946
  • Rebecca DeWolf (bio)

At a 1937 congressional hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Elsie Hill, a veteran member of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), declared: “We do not want to be discriminated against and we want to be regarded as ‘persons’ under the Constitution of the United States.” She went on to observe, “There is a great sympathy with the subject. . . . People declare for equal opportunity.” Hill was not alone in her optimistic assessment of the ERA campaign. As early as 1934, for instance, Democratic Representative Louis Ludlow of Indiana proclaimed that it was the “psychological time to press the amendment.” And in 1936 Betty Gram Swing, head of the NWP’s ERA congressional effort, announced, “We have the best chance of winning Equal Rights now that we have ever had since the Amendment was first introduced.”1 For amendment proponents, the Depression Era had marked an encouraging turning point in the ERA conflict.

Support for the ERA dramatically increased among congressional members, interest groups, and the general public from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. First, the economic turmoil of the Great Depression eventually encouraged more women’s groups to oppose sex-specific labor policies and back the ERA. In addition, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and World War II strengthened the growing energy behind the ERA, because these developments further dislocated conventional sex boundaries. By the end of war the ERA momentum had intensified as a range of cultural and political luminaries endorsed the amendment and both political parties backed the amendment in their party platforms. Furthermore, the rising support for the ERA incited significant congressional action on the amendment in the mid-1940s. Above all, the destabilizing nature of the Depression and World War II helped ERA supporters open a door to complete constitutional equality for men and women citizens. [End Page 47]

ideological contours of the equal rights amendment

The Nineteenth Amendment profoundly changed women’s relationship to the state since it displaced the traditional understanding of American citizenship that had given men authority over women in law and in custom. This development ignited a debate about the constitutional effects of federal woman suffrage. Eventually this debate evolved into a more than forty-year-long battle over the nature of American citizenship, which was the original ERA conflict. There has been little scholarly exploration, however, of the conflicting concepts of citizenship rooted in the ERA struggle. Many works detail the ERA’s impact on the women’s movement, but few have explored the gendered ideas that influenced how the participants understood the notion of civic rights.2

Most of the extant literature on the ERA examines the ratification struggle of the 1970s and early 1980s as well as the amendment’s impact on the women’s movement after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. For example, the primary concern for several works is why the ERA failed to secure enough state approvals during the later ratification battle.3 Yet this emphasis on the later struggle overlooks the earlier dynamic history of the ERA conflict. As the rise in support for the amendment during the Depression and World War II indicates, the ERA was not a dormant issue until the 1970s; rather, it involved a spirited battle that was anything but static. Other works explore the earliest years of the ERA conflict by looking at the struggle in the 1920s; these works predominantly understand the controversy as a dispute among women, about women, and only concerning women. Most important, they frame the early conflict as a fight between feminist groups over the trajectory of the women’s movement in the aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment. According to this analysis, one group worked to expand women’s involvement in social reform programs, while the other group single-mindedly focused on the effort to secure complete sexual equality. In all, this second body of work primarily employs a female-centric narrative that emphasizes how the early ERA campaign affected the women’s movement.4

While the previous writing on the ERA offers important insights, this study maintains that the original ERA conflict is best...


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