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 15, 1940: Despite a valiant effort by the National Woman’s Party and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the Democratic Party today declined to join Republicans in endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment.
Concern about eliminating so-called “protective” labor laws for women caused the proposal to become controversial, though First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s opposition was what finally sealed its fate, at least until the next convention.
The battle was intense, and had been anticipated ever since June 26th, when Republicans made the E.R.A. a campaign issue by including the following statement in their platform: “We favor submission by Congress to the States of an amendment to the Constitution providing equal rights for men and women.”
The clash here in Chicago began when the Women’s Advisory Committee, which advises the Resolutions Committee on issues of special importance to women, ignored the E.R.A. in its 15-point program. The portion of their proposal that dealt with labor read:
“The Democratic Party will continue its efforts to achieve equality for men and women, without impairing the social legislation which protects true equality by safeguarding the heath, safety and economic welfare of women workers. The right to work for compensation in both public and private employment is an innate privilege belonging to women as well as to men, without distinction as to marital status.”
Though the second sentence, which attacks the widespread discrimination and entrenched prejudice against married women who work outside the home had universal support here at the convention, the first sentence did not.
Endorsing full equality for women without calling for the legislation that would bring it about was totally unacceptable to the National Woman’s Party, B.P.W. and others. Perhaps the most zealous E.R.A. advocate among the delegates is Emma Guffey Miller of Pennsylvania, who attacked the Women’s Advisory Committee’s validity, since it is small, met in a secret “executive session” and gave E.R.A. advocates no opportunity to make our case. As she noted:
“If the official Resolutions Committee feels it wise, necessary and democratic to ask what the people of the nation desire in a platform, how can a Women’s Advisory Committee for fifteen States meeting in secret session reflect the sentiment of the Democratic women of the nation?”
Though unsuccessful in persuading the Resolutions Committee to allow all the delegates to vote on an E.R.A. plank, some E.R.A. advocates did at least get a chance to voice their views to the committee. George Gordon Battle, a New York attorney, was among those allowed to speak at length. But his eloquent address was interrupted when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement arrived and was read, saying:
“I feel about the Equal Rights Amendment just as I have always felt, namely, that until women are unionized to a far greater extent than they are at present, an equal rights amendment will work great hardship on the industrial group, which after all is the largest group of wage-earning women. Therefore, at the present time, for us, as a party interested in the well-being and protection of workers, to put into our platform an equal rights amendment plank would be a great mistake, and in this I think all the leaders of the workers would concur.”
Battle tried to make a rebuttal to the First Lady’s statement on behalf of the 17 national and 150 local organizations that have endorsed the E.R.A., but Senator Wagner of New York, head of the Resolutions Committee, prevented him from reading statements from those groups and some prominent individuals. But Battle did get to finish his own presentation, and noted a number of laws that clearly discriminate against women. For instance, in Oklahoma, women are prohibited from holding any major public office, and in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and some other States, women have inferior rights in regard to making contracts, being guardians of their children, and inheriting property. As he noted:
“It seems a curious thing that there should be any objection to such a movement as this when we have progressed so far in other and minor directions toward removing from women the injustices and inequalities under which they have formerly suffered. This committee is not being asked to make a decision on this amendment. It is being requested merely to submit to the convention a plank which provides that the amendment be referred to the various states for action by the voters of those States. Surely this is nothing if not democratic action.”
Immediately after Battle finished, Nan Wood Honeyman asked permission to read statements in opposition to the E.R.A. from David Dubinski of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League. Without waiting for approval, she then did so.
Though the E.R.A. has not yet achieved bipartisan support, the fact that one major party has already endorsed it just 17 years after the campaign for it began, and that there are many strong supporters in the other party, means that this should be only a temporary setback. Another attempt will be made in 1944 to convince our opponents that labor laws applying only to women do more to “restrict” them than to “protect” them, and that as with the vote, a Constitutional amendment is the only practical way to permanently, uniformly, and explicitly achieve this next vital step on the long road to full equality.