Today in Feminist History: The Largest March for Women’s Rights in U.S. History (July 9, 1978)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


July 9, 1978: In the largest march for women’s rights thus far in U.S. history – nearly three times the size of the largest suffrage parade, and approximately twice as big as the landmark August 26, 1970 march in New York City – a hundred thousand supporters of equality took to the streets of Washington, D.C., today to call for an extension of the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment!

FRONT RANK IN THE PHOTO TAKEN EARLIER TODAY (left to right): Gloria Steinem, Dick Gregory, Betty Friedan, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY), and Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

The spectacle was as colorful as it was powerful, with over 325 delegations, representing a wide coalition of groups, displaying their names on purple, white and gold banners. Those are the colors of the National Woman’s Party, which on July 21, 1923, at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, formally launched the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment to permanently and explicitly ban sex discrimination.

Appropriately, the first banner in today’s march paid tribute to the National Woman’s Party’s founder, and author of the E.R.A.: “Alice Paul, 1885 – 1977.” She passed away exactly a year ago today. This banner was followed by an antique trolley car carrying several veteran suffragists, whose battle for a Constitutional ban on sex discrimination at the polls ended successfully on August 26, 1920, when the Secretary of State certified that the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment was now the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Numerous participants saluted the suffragists by dressing in white, as many had done in parades and pageants, plus other events such as the “Silent Sentinel” picketing of President Wilson from 1917 to 1919.

The unexpectedly large turnout overwhelmed everyone, from organizers who had to delay the start for 90 minutes, to police who suddenly had to close all of Constitution Avenue instead of just half. It was more than three hours after the start of the march that the last delegation finally made its way from the Mall to the rally on the West Steps of the Capitol. There the crowd heard 35 nationally known speakers tell why the E.R.A. is needed and that the battle can be won.

“This is just the beginning,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of the National Organization for Women, sponsor of the rally. She then said:

“We are here because our hearts are here, our souls are here and our spirits long for liberty and justice. And we will not – we will not ever – accept a country in which we remain second class citizens! The E.R.A. – liberty for women – is not an idea. It is not just a hope. It is a spirit that lives in each one of us, and it can’t go away. We can’t go home to the 19th Century because we are going to march into the 21st! So we will march, we will demonstrate, we will petition, we will write letters, we will work this summer like we have never worked before, and we will march into history. We will finish and complete the American dream. We will make real the promise of equality for all.”

Other speakers and marchers expressed similar feelings. Esther Rolle, best known for her roles in the hit TV shows “Maude” and “Good Times,” said: “Congress better wake up. There will be political consequences if E.R.A. doesn’t get the support it should.” Patsy Mink, of Americans for Democratic Action, agreed, saying: “If they dare to turn us down, we will turn them out on the next election day.” Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY), sponsor of H.J.R. 638, which would extend the E.R.A.’s present deadline of March 22, 1979, said: “Time is on our side and we will win!”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asked: 

“How will people look at us 50 years from now if Congress doesn’t even give us more time? We look back on history and we wonder what all the fuss was about over an issue. The point of E.R.A. is to get people to recognize that change is already here. You see a 22-year-old girl with a cop’s hat and you know that 20 years ago, a girl that same age would have been a secretary in the police station.”

N.O.W.’s first president, Betty Friedan, marched along on this hot and humid day, and said: “It’s an incredible turnout. I don’t see how anybody could say there wasn’t support for E.R.A. with this crowd showing up in this weather.”

Eleanor Smeal also noted the huge numbers for this event and the lack of anything comparable by “Stop E.R.A.” forces, when she said to the delight of the audience: “Phyllis Schlafly – wherever you are – eat your heart out !”

Former N.O.W. presidents Wilma Scott Heide and Karen DeCrow were there to participate in N.O.W.’s largest event ever. It was ably coordinated by Jane Wells Schooley, who had only weeks to turn a N.O.W. Board Resolution into a march and rally of truly historic proportions.

After its formal launching by the National Woman’s Party 55 years ago this month, the E.R.A. was introduced into the Senate on December 10, 1923, then into the House three days later by Rep. Daniel Read Anthony (R-KS), a nephew of Susan B. Anthony. It was passed by Congress on March 22, 1972, following overwhelming approval by both House (354-24) and Senate (84-8). A seven-year deadline was set at the time, but as was first noted by law students and N.O.W. members Catherine Timlin and Alice Bennett, the deadline is not part of the text of the amendment, so it could be altered or deleted by a simple majority of Congress. 

Thirty-five of the thirty-eight State ratifications needed occurred between March, 1972 and January, 1977. Had just EIGHT individual State Senators changed their votes, the E.R.A. would already have gotten three more State ratifications and become part of the Constitution on March 1, 1977. In 1975, an E.R.A. ratification resolution was passed by the Florida House and the Nevada House, but it came up three votes short in the Senate in both States. In 1977, the North Carolina House passed a ratification resolution, but it came up two votes short in the Senate.

The American people are ready for equality, as public support for the E.R.A. stands at 64% according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, and 58% according to Gallup. The full text of the E.R.A. is:

“Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or 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.”

The extension resolution is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, and a vote is expected soon. As many as 5,000 of today’s marchers are expected to stay overnight and then participate in Monday’s “Lobby Day” on Capitol Hill to keep up the momentum generated by today’s march. 

Though time is short, and just 256 days remain until the original deadline expires, today’s turnout has caused a justifiable boost in optimism. There’s a universal consensus among everyone here that E.R.A. ratification is only a question of “when” or “how” and not “if,” because as in the struggle for suffrage, there is no time limit on seeking equality, or how long feminists are willing to work for that goal.


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About

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.