Today in Feminist History: The E.R.A. Has Bipartisan Support! (July 20, 1944)

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 20, 1944: The Equal Rights Amendment will now enjoy bipartisan support!

On the 96th anniversary of the final day of the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the Resolutions Committee has just agreed to include a demand for the E.R.A. in this year’s Democratic Party Platform. Four years after Republicans first endorsed it, Democrats will now join them in calling for the measure that would assure full Constitutional equality for women and men. After first endorsing “Federal legislation assuring equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex,” the proposed platform plank says: “We recommend to Congress the submission of a Constitutional amendment on equal rights for women.”

It was an uphill fight from the start this week, beginning with testimony before the Resolutions Subcommittee three days ago. Among the leading E.R.A. advocates were Emma Guffey Miller and Perle Mesta. Also speaking in favor of the National Woman’s Party’s proposal were representatives of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the Central Board of the American Medical Women’s Association. 

Opposing endorsement were the National Consumers League, the National League of Women Voters, and the National Catholic Welfare Council. Statements of opposition from Philip Murray, president of the C.I.O., as well as from the National Board of the Y.W.C.A., the National Council of Jewish Women, and the American Association of University Women were also read into the record.

Some of the opposition testimony was rather vehement. Marvin Harrison, speaking for the National Consumers League, called the E.R.A. a “lunatic proposal” and asked that the Democratic Party be “saved from endorsing on a ‘me, too’ basis, this plank which the Republican Party put into its platform, I believe, without much discussion.”

On the second day of testimony one major issue was determining the current view of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Two letters from her were read into the record, the older of which was non-committal, the more recent one a restatement of her opposition. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testified that Roosevelt’s letter of July 9th, written to the head of opposition forces, would probably be the most accurate representation of her views. The fact that back in February both sides staged a debate for her, and the First Lady was not converted to the cause would tend to support Perkins’ assertion.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement, read to the Resolutions Committee at the convention in 1940 that doomed the E.R.A. four years ago. She believes that until wage-earning women are more fully unionized, they need special legislation. The National Woman’s Party believes that legislation applying only to women workers is more “restrictive” than “protective,” making it more difficult for them to compete with men for jobs, and that any laws that are truly protective should benefit all workers. 

Secretary Perkins then went on to say that she personally opposed the E.R.A. because it would “tamper with” so-called “protective” labor legislation, and laws that require a husband to support his wife and children. On the affirmative side, Shirley Granger, president of the St. Joan Society, countered opposition testimony given the day before by Linna Bressette of the National Catholic Welfare Council, which implied that Catholic women were opposed to the E.R.A.: “As an American, as a Democrat, and a Catholic, I appeal to you to put an Equal Rights Amendment plank in the platform.”

E.R.A.’s prospects looked dim for a while, and there was many an anxious moment earlier today as both sides waited outside a closed door while the full platform committee debated inside. But when the members emerged, the announcement was made that there would be an E.R.A. plank in the platform when it is submitted to delegates. This caused great jubilation among members of the National Woman’s Party, the E.R.A.’s principal sponsor since the beginning of the campaign. With both major parties now on board, E.R.A.’s author, Alice Paul, expressed renewed confidence:

“I would say that this would make possible ratification by 1948, which is the date we have striven to meet because it completes the century since the original Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. We have always felt that should be our goal, to give women complete freedom and equality in a century. Therefore when we celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention in 1923 we submitted the Equal Rights Amendment to Congress and have fought for it ever since.”

There are presently 52 Senators on record as favoring the E.R.A., just 12 short of the 64 out of 96 needed if all members are present and voting. It has already been favorably reported out by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is on the Senate calendar for a vote. In the House it is now under consideration by the Judiciary Committee. 

As originally introduced into the Senate on December 10, 1923, by Senator Charles Curtis, Republican of Kansas, and into the House three days later by Kansas Republican Daniel Read Anthony Jr., (nephew of Susan B. Anthony), the proposal read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

Last year the wording was changed, and as approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 24, 1943, it now reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Since our supporters in Congress plan to give the States five years to ratify, this would be sufficient to assure E.R.A.’s inclusion in the Constitution if the National Woman’s Party meets its goal of getting it approved by Congress this session, and ratified by 36 of the 48 States in time to celebrate the Seneca Falls Centennial on July 19-20, 1948!


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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.