Today in Feminist History: Betty Ford’s Support for the E.R.A. (September 4, 1974)

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.

September 4, 1974: Just 26 days after becoming First Lady, Betty Ford held her first press conference today, making it clear to the 142 reporters and photographers in the State Dining Room of the White House that helping to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment would be among her priorities.

Today’s full-fledged news conference was an unprecedented move. Eleanor Roosevelt held 348 press conferences, but they were relatively small, quite informal, and open to women only, as a way of helping them get ahead in a male-dominated profession.

Though the new First Lady doesn’t intend to get involved in partisan political issues, she does want to encourage women to play an active role in politics. There is, of course, one exception to her non-partisan role, and she left no doubt that she’d be campaigning for President Ford in 1976.

In regard to participating in the campaign for the E.R.A., a measure endorsed by Republicans since 1940 and Democrats since 1944, Ford said: “I would be happy to take part in it.” She intends to lobby for the amendment in the 17 states that have not yet ratified to help get the five more needed. Though her husband once joked about the issue with her when he was a Member of Congress, and in 1971 backed off his initial strong support of it a year earlier due to pressure from some of his anti-E.R.A. constituents in Michigan’s Fifth District, the First Lady assured the press that the President is a strong E.R.A. advocate. He re-endorsed the E.R.A. on August 22nd at a press conference just 13 days after President Nixon resigned and Vice President Ford, who was appointed Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned last October 10th, assumed the Presidency.

On other issues, the First Lady said that the vacation White House would be in Vail, Colorado, that she was kept quite busy with her new duties, and that the children have adjusted quite well to life in the White House.

The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification on March 22, 1972, and has until March 22, 1979 to gain the 38 state approvals needed for inclusion in the Constitution. Polls show consistent public support for the measure, and so far 33 states have ratified, three this year: Maine, Montana and Ohio. The Equal Rights Amendment reads:

“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.”

Though the pace of ratifications has slowed, that’s to be expected, as the more progressive states would ratify quickly, the more conservative ones more slowly – and after a battle. But with only five more states needed to ratify and four and a half years to get them to do so, plus the support of the First Family, things are definitely looking up for the Equal Right Amendment 51 years after the campaign for it was launched by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party.

UPDATE: The revitalized campaign for the E.R.A. continues 44 years later, with a 36th ratification in Nevada in 2017, and a 37th in Illinois in May of this year. Just one more ratification – and deletion of the previously set deadlines by Congress – will bring victory, and permanent enshrine it in the Constitution, making it clear to all present and future Supreme Court Justices that ALL forms of sex discrimination are unconstitutional


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.