Today in Feminist History: Congressional Subcommittee Approves Equal Rights Amendment (May 30, 1936)

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.

May 30, 1936: The Equal Rights Amendment took a major step toward becoming the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution today when—for the first time in its 13-year history—it was approved by a sub-unit of Congress.

Rep. Louis Ludlow, Democrat, representing Indiana’s 12th District. (Wikimedia Commons)

By a vote of four-to-two, the House Judiciary Subcommittee issued a favorable recommendation on the E.R.A., so if it can get over the next hurdle, approval by the full House Judiciary Committee, it could then be voted upon by the entire House. It reads:

“Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

The amendment’s House sponsor, Rep. Louis Ludlow, Democrat of Indiana, called today’s favorable recommendation “an epochal event in the advancement of the cause of women in America,” and also said that “it gives valuable moral support and impetus to a cause that is daily gaining ground among right-thinking people. The Equal Rights Amendment is a necessary corollary and supplement of equal suffrage and its adoption will be the crowning act that will bring women to a status of the complete emancipation to which they are entitled by all the rules of right and justice.”

The E.R.A. was written by Alice Paul, and her National Woman’s Party has always been at the forefront of the fight for its adoption. Immediately after today’s victory, statements were issued by party members.

Florence Bayard Hilles expressed justifiable optimism:

“After years of indifference in Congress, and, I must admit, among women, we are within sight of achieving our final goal of realizing and safeguarding for all time full legal equality with men for all American women.” Betty Gram Swing said: “With the favorable report of the resolution to the full committee, the measure starts on its journey; at last we are on our way.”

Today’s approval comes at an opportune time. Both major parties will be having their national conventions next month, and the National Woman’s Party will be sending delegations to lobby the Republicans for an endorsement when they meet in Cleveland on June 9, and the Democrats when they convene in Philadelphia on June 23.

If her schedule permits, the most famous member of a Woman’s Party delegation will be Amelia Earhart. She has been aiding the N.W.P.’s efforts on this issue since at least 1932, when she and other party members met with then-President Hoover in support of the E.R.A. Earhart feels that so-called “protective” labor legislation applying only to women is really “restrictive” and that it can “only prolong the infantile period of women, and work to the disadvantage of those who want to progress. Hours and wages should be based on work, not sex, nor any other consideration.”

Novelist Fanny Hurst is another well-known supporter. Her enthusiastic endorsement of the E.R.A. was shown in a recent letter to the National Woman’s Party in which she wrote:

“I do hope that your organization can lift potent voices in behalf of what seems to me to be the uncontroversial right of women to be free of ‘special protection’ or restraint in their contractual or civil relationships.”

The campaign for the E.R.A. was kicked off on July 21, 1923, by the National Woman’s Party while celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention. The amendment was introduced into Congress in December, 1923, by Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel Anthony—nephew of Susan B. Anthony. Both legislators were Republicans from Kansas. The House Judiciary Subcommittee held its first E.R.A. hearings two months after the resolution’s introduction, with the National Woman’s Party the only group testifying in favor. But today, the Woman’s Party is no longer alone, with fifty women’s groups, some of them national organizations such as the National Association of Women Lawyers, and eleven international organizations having pledged their support.

The outlook in the 24-member House Judiciary Committee is uncertain. Nine members have said they favor the E.R.A., eight have declared their opposition, and seven are uncommitted. In addition to eloquent testimony by proponents at hearings, there will need to be some intense lobbying of the seven who are still undecided, so letters and phone calls from their constituents are especially needed. But whether it gets through to a House vote this session or not, today’s victory clearly shows that the momentum is on the side of E.R.A. suppporters, and though it has already been long delayed, full equality will not be forever denied.


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.