Today in Feminist History: (March 22, 1972)

March 22, 1972: Full legal equality for women and men, once considered among the most radical of ideas, has now received the overwhelming endorsement of both houses of Congress in the form of an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution!

Photo: Senator Birch Bayh.

Following a vote of 354-23 last October 12th in the House, and an 84-8 Senate victory today, the measure now goes to the state legislatures, where 38 out of 50 must ratify before March 22, 1979.

Hawaii seized the honor of being the first—just 32 minutes after the Senate vote—and ratified unanimously.

Here in Washington, D.C., there was a great celebration in the Senate galleries when the vote was announced, despite visitors being told beforehand that such outbursts would not be permitted.

Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-MI)—who two years ago used a rare maneuver called a “Discharge Petition” to dislodge the E.R.A. from the House Judiciary Committee where its Chair, Emanuel Celler (D-NY), had kept it bottled up since 1949—was permitted to be present on the Senate floor, as was Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY). 

Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC)—who almost single-handedly blocked Senate action on the E.R.A. for years—led the opposition during four days of heated debate.

Knowing he couldn’t defeat it, he made numerous attempts to weaken it, but support for the amendment in its “pure” form was so strong that none of his “riders” got more than the 18 votes for his proposal to exempt women from the draft. 

Much of the credit for today’s victory goes to intense lobbying by groups such as the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs—plus, of course, Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. It was Paul who wrote the E.R.A., and the N.W.P. that officially kicked off the drive for it in 1923, while commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention.

Today, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Chittick, the Party’s current Chair, hosted a celebration tea at N.W.P. headquarters.

Afterwards, party members began calling state chapters to coordinate ratification efforts. Other groups followed suit, so the hard work of gaining 37 more ratifications is already underway.

Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), the E.R.A.’s principal Senate sponsor, predicted today that it will be passed “with dispatch” and well before the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. The fastest any amendment has been ratified is the 3 months and 8 days needed last year to ratify the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The slowest ratification time was for the 22nd Amendment, which limits a President to two terms, requiring 3 years, 11 months and 6 days to complete the process between 1947 and 1951.

The proposed 27th Amendment says:

“Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

“Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. 

“Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.