Today in Feminist History: Labor Unions Support the E.R.A. (September 14, 1970)

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 14, 1970: The myth that only women in elite professions support the E.R.A. was refuted today at a news conference by women representing several labor unions.

Dorothy Haener, of United Auto Workers, and a founder of the National Organization for Women in 1966.

At Senate hearings last week, it was argued by Myra Wolfgang of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union that since so-called “protective” laws restricting women’s hours and the amount of weight they can lift would be invalidated if the E.R.A. is passed, employers would then take advantage of this to exploit working-class women. 

But at today’s press conference, Dorothy Haener, representing United Auto Workers, noted that laws restricting the amount of weight a woman can lift had only been enforced in regard to keeping women out of high-paying jobs, and brought no benefit to women in minimum-wage jobs such as waitresses. Not only that, domestic workers, among the country’s lowest-paid, have always been exempt from weight-limit and maximum hour restrictions.

Cele Carrigan, also of United Auto Workers, said that laws restricting only women workers were already invalid due to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that unions were in court fighting such restrictions. Fifteen states have already repealed such provisions and the courts have struck down others. Among the other unions present were the International Union of Electrical Workers, the Butchers and Meat Cutters Union and the American Federation of Government Employees.

E.R.A. hearings are now being conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the anti-E.R.A. side having begun testimony five days ago. In an unexpected development, one of the witnesses who testified three days ago, Professor Leo Kanowitz, of the University of New Mexico, spoke in favor. He had previously been opposed to the E.R.A., and his shift of views was apparently unknown to the committee. He was grilled by Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, but stuck to his new position and said that his previous concerns about the E.R.A.’s effects had been put to rest. 

It’s quite unusual for opponents of legislation to go first at hearings, and it is believed by some that this is part of a strategy by anti-E.R.A. committee members to get their case against the E.R.A. before the public, then find some excuse to keep postponing the testimony of those in favor. Today was supposed to be the first day for our side to testify. Acting Committee Chair Sam Ervin’s cancellation of today’s hearing only increased suspicions that only one side would get to testify, or get equal time if testimony is eventually given.

The E.R.A. was introduced into Congress in December, 1923, by Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel Anthony (the latter a nephew of Susan B. Anthony), both Republicans of Kansas. The first hearings were held in the House in February, 1924, with the Senate following a year later. It has been endorsed by the Republican Party since 1940, the Democrats since 1944, and supported by every President since Harry Truman reaffirmed his support for it five months after taking office in 1945.

On February 10th of this year women disrupted a Senate hearing on an amendment that would give 18-year-olds the vote, demanding action on the E.R.A. as well. Apparently the tactic worked, because in May, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held three days of E.R.A. hearings with Betty Friedan, among others, testifying in favor. On August 10th, the House voted 346-15 in favor. No hearings had been held because the House Judiciary Committee Chair, Democrat Emanuel Celler, who had been blocking the E.R.A. since he became the Committee’s Chair in 1949, refused to hold them. Representative Martha Griffiths, Democrat of Michigan, got enough signatures from her fellow House members on a discharge petition to bring the E.R.A. out of committee and before the full House for a vote.

If the 100-member Senate approves it by a 2/3 majority – and it has 83 sponsors, 16 more than the 67 votes required for passage even if all members are present and voting – it will be sent to the state legislatures for ratification, where it will need the approval of 38 out of 50 for the 3/4 the Constitution requires. The Equal Rights Amendment, authored by Alice Paul, 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: 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.