Today in Feminist History: The E.R.A. in the Senate (September 15, 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 15, 1970: Today, Equal Rights Amendment supporters finally got a chance to make the case for Constitutional equality to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wilma Scott Heide.

But in a move that mirrored the kind of bias that still exists, our side was allowed only one day of testimony, despite opponents being given three last week. Fortunately, the witnesses made such great impressions, and made their points so well, that a single day may turn out to be sufficient.

Wilma Scott Heide, who chairs the National Organization for Women’s National Board, and is a Human Relations Commissioner in Pennsylvania, began by addressing some stereotypes, telling the Senators:

“I am not a ‘bubble head’ and I do not burn bras. I am a middle class member of mid-America.” Here she was first alluding to a remark made on August 26th by Senator Jennings Randolph, Democrat of West Virginia, about feminists, and then the “braburning” myth that has plagued the movement since the Miss America demonstration in 1968.

She then noted that because every society puts such an emphasis on arbitrary gender roles:

“I know now that I shall never achieve my full potential… It is tragic that the reproductive abilities women share with all other mammals have been more highly valued and developed than the productive intelligence we do not share with any other animal. My ability to reproduce two children does not confer on me the unique ability, based on my sex, to care for and raise these children, any more than my husband’s biological ability to father these children disqualifies him from child care. Homemaking and child care are learned social roles without biological imperatives as to who performs them.”

Heide is also vehemently opposed to any changes in the E.R.A.’s text. Over the years, proposals have been made to add “riders” so that it would allow exceptions. The original “Hayden Rider,” first proposed by Senator Carl Hayden (D-AZ), in 1950, stated: “The provisions of this article shall not be construed to impair any rights, benefits or exemptions now or hereafter conferred by law upon members of the female sex.”

Current riders, proposed by Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) would render the E.R.A. into something purely symbolic if attached. In fact, if language creating such exemptions were to be added to the text, the E.R.A. could no longer even be called an “equal rights” amendment, because it would authorize special rights and privileges for women and permanently validate forms of discrimination against men such as male-only Selective Service registration and mandatory military service. 

Heide made it clear that there would be no going back to the 1950s, and that women were demanding their fair share of power and influence: 

“We whose hands have rocked the cradle are now using our heads to rock the boat so that in proportion to our numbers we intend to share in guiding the ship of state and of the world. We value ourselves, our children and men too much to deprive the world of our other talents.”

One example of Heide “rocking the boat” occurred on February 17th, when she led a group of about 20 N.O.W. members in a disruption of a Senate subcommittee hearing on an amendment that would lower the voting age nationwide from 21 to 18. The protesters demanded that the subcommittee take up the E.R.A. as well. The tactic worked, and that’s why the E.R.A. is the subject of hearings in the Senate now instead of languishing indefinitely in subcommittee. 

Representative Martha Griffiths (D-MI), who was responsible for extracting the E.R.A. from the House Judiciary Committee, where it had been bottled up for two decades, and who then led the successful fight for approval by the full House, also testified at today’s hearings. She attacked anti-E.R.A. fears about abolishing “protective” legislation for women by noting: “It has always been a matter of some amusement to me that a woman who can lug around a squirming 20-pound kid all day can’t lift 12 pounds at work.”

Norman Dorson, of New York University, spoke to concerns expressed by other law professors that the E.R.A. was too vague and would lead to years of litigation. He said that these fears have been “magnified unrealistically” and that Constitutional amendments are always broad and general in their language. But even if some litigation proved necessary in the amendment’s interpretation: “It is wrong to suggest that because ending deep-set and historic discrimination will result in some uncertainly and litigation we should not act.”

With far more sponsors in the Senate than the 2/3 needed for approval, it appears that 47 years after its introduction into Congress, Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment is about to get final approval and be sent to the States for ratification. So, unless there are unexpected developments or unforeseeable delays, when the nation celebrates its Bicentennial in 1976, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution should read:

“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.