Black Women in Support of the Equal Rights Amendment: “A Victory Over Right-Wing Racist Sexism”

When the 28th Amendment is finally recognized as part of the U.S. Constitution, Black women deserve significant credit for the ERA.

Pauli Murray, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy and Barbara Jordan are a few of the prominent Black women who have advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the 1970s, many Black organizations endorsed the ERA, including the National Black Feminist Organization, the NAACP and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. A 1970s Gallup opinion poll showed that 60 percent of Black women supported the ERA.

“There is a long history of activism from Black women and women of color in support of women’s rights and the ERA,” said historian and professor of Africana Studies Dr. Mary Phillips of Lehman College of City University of New York.

Today Black women continue to play a critical role in pushing for the ERA. In the three states to recently ratify the ERA, Black women were at the forefront. Nevada Senator Pat Spearman led the successful campaign for ratification of the ERA in her state in 2017. Representative Juliana Stratton made extensive floor speeches in support of ERA when Illinois ratified in 2018. Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy, Mamie Locke and Jennifer McClellan led the successful effort to ratify the ERA in Virginia in 2020, finally bringing the total ratifications of the ERA to the 38 states required to become part of the Constitution.

Generations of Black women leaders have made powerful arguments in support of the ERA. As we fight to overcome the final obstacle—a Senate Republican filibuster of a resolution to recognize the fully-ratified Amendment—these women’s words can inspire today’s activists and build momentum to finally achieve the dream of making the ERA part of the U.S. Constitution.

Black Women Advocated for the ERA in the 1970s

black-women-support-equal-rights-amendment-era
Still from My Name is Pauli Murray. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Feminist lawyer and civil rights advocate Pauli Murray testified for the Equal Rights Amendment at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1970. In her testimony, Murray drew upon her own experiences of race and sex discrimination to explain her support for the ERA:

“Although my motivation, energy and effort to meet the highest standards of performance have been operative throughout my life, I have experienced numerous delays in my career, not for the traditional reasons given for the failure of women to develop on par with men in our society (marriage, childrearing, etc.), but by a combination of individual and institutional racism and sexism—Jim Crow and Jane Crow…

“As a constitutional lawyer, a woman and a [Black person], I can say with conviction that [Black] women as a group have the most to gain from the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. All that has been said about the frustrations and deprivations of American women generally because of discrimination by reason of sex can be said with special force about the position of Black women.”

Murray then described and analyzed white men’s hostility toward Black women and the importance of the ERA to resisting this abuse:

“[Black women have] suffered more than the mere addition of sex discrimination to race discrimination. She has suffered the conjunction of these twin immoralities… The conjunction of race and sex discrimination directed toward a [Black] woman has a special quality of virulence which becomes almost unbearable.

“My personal experience and observation lead me to believe that when the dominant white male is afflicted by racism and sexism, albeit unconscious, his hostility toward the [Black] female who asserts her rights as a person is unbounded. It is as if his superior position is threatened on two fronts simultaneously and he finds it necessary to resist with greater intransigence than if he were required to yield only a single symbol of dominance. In her struggle for survival and dignity, therefore, the [Black] woman stands almost alone and must appeal to the fundamental law of the law to give her a footing upon which to build some semblance of stability for herself and for her children.”

Murray also examined opposition to the ERA as a result of men’s fear of losing power and privilege:

“I suggest that what the opponents of the Amendment most fear is not equal rights but equal power and responsibility. I further suggest that underlying the issue of equal rights for women is the more fundamental issue of equal power for women.

‘No group in power has surrendered its power without a struggle. Many male opponents of equal rights for women recognize the more fundamentally revolutionary nature of the changes which a genuine implementation of such an amendment would bring about. A society in which more than half of the population is absent from the formal authority and decision-making processes is a society in dangerous imbalance…

“Men of inferior performance will necessarily have to yield their positions of power and privilege to women of superior performance. This fact alone, I submit, is at the very core of much male opposition to the adoption of this Amendment.”

In an article in the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Review, Murray argued that Black women as a group “have the most to gain from the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment.” She explained:

“Implicit in the amendment’s guarantee of equality of rights without regard to sex is the constitutional recognition of personal dignity which transcends gender. At the heart of the resentment of many women against their present status is the fact that legal classifications and distinctions based upon sex are not only discriminatory in themselves, but also lend governmental support to entrenched customs which ignore women as persons and treat them primarily as sex objects. All that has been said about the deprivations and frustrations of women generally in this respect applies with special force to black women, who have been doubly victimized by the twin immoralities of racial and sexual bias.”

Murray had high hopes for the ERA: “The adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, and its ratification by several states, could well usher in an unprecedented golden age of human relations in our national life, and help our country to become an example of the practical ideal that the sole purpose of government is to create the conditions under which the uniqueness of each individual is cherished and is encouraged to fulfill his or her creative potential.”

The same year, Murray wrote an impassioned letter to the ACLU, where she sat on the board, urging the organization to withdraw its opposition to the ERA, which was based on the fear that the Amendment would invalidate sex-based protective labor laws.

black-women-support-equal-rights-amendment-era
Shirley Chisholm campaign poster. (Seattle City Council / Flickr)

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was also a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. On August 10, 1970, Rep. Chisholm gave a speech titled “I Am For the Equal Rights Amendment,” arguing:

“[The ERA] provides a legal basis for attack on the most subtle, most pervasive, and most institutionalized form of prejudice that exists. Discrimination against women, solely on the basis of their sex, is so widespread that is seems to many persons normal, natural and right…

“This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set further generations free of them.

“Federal agencies and institutions responsible for the enforcement of equal opportunity laws need the authority of a Constitutional amendment… ‘When men and women are prevented from recognizing one another’s humanity by sexual prejudices, nourished by legal as well as social institutions, society as a whole remains less than it could otherwise become.’”

black-women-support-equal-rights-amendment-era
Flo Kennedy with Gloria Steinem speaking at a NOW meeting in 1991. (Screenshot from YouTube)

In 1976, feminist lawyer and civil rights activist Florence Kennedy appeared on the Massachusetts television program “Say Brother” on WGBH in the second of a five-part series on the Black women and the ERA. Kennedy argued that the ERA would be “a victory over right-wing racist sexism.”

On the topic of dissension in the movement, Kennedy spoke about the Coalition Against Racism and Sexism, which came together to support the ERA: “We have black people, the lesbian-feminist liberation, the COYOTE groups, the prostitutes’ organization, all the gay community— men and women—all fighting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I think that coalition of people ready to take anti-establishmentarian positions is stronger than our just going off in different directions.”

The same year, an issue of The Black Scholar published an essay by Black feminists Cathy Sedwick and Reba Williams arguing for the critical importance of the ERA for Black women. They described ERA opposition as part of a “well-organized, well-financed, right-wing campaign…directed against the rights of not only women, but of blacks and other working people as well.” They explained:

“Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR), the chief antibusing group in Boston, has openly attacked the ERA. In April 1975, 200 ROAR thugs invaded a meeting in support of the ERA and shouted down the speakers, disrupting the meeting. They carried signs reading ‘Abortion is Murder,’ ‘Stop Forced Busing,’ and ‘Feminist Dominance Equals Communism.’ These same forces were instrumental in obtaining a conviction of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a black doctor found guilty last year of manslaughter for performing a legal abortion on a black woman in Boston.

“The connection between racism and sexism becomes even clearer when the composition of the anti-ERA forces on a national scale is analyzed. Some of the most hated enemies of black rights stand in opposition to the ERA. They include the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, ROAR, and the National Organization to Restore And Preserve Our Freedom, an antibusing group in Louisville, Kentucky.”

In a call to arms, Sedwick and Williams argued that this “makes it imperative that every black woman realize what we stand to gain from the passage of the ERA, and what we will lose if the right-wing offensive against it is successful.”

They then described how the ERA would help Black women specifically:

“While the ERA will not wipe out the sexist practices of the employers, who hire black women for the most menial, back-breaking labor, it will give us a legal weapon to fight these practices…just as the civil rights laws won by black people in the 1960s spearheaded further struggles against race discrimination in all forms.

“The ERA would also be a tool to fight against unfair sentencing of women by the courts… [where] black women are exploited not just by the racist nature of the judicial system but also by its sexist nature…

“Ratification of the ERA would put black women in a better position to fight on all fronts. Each gain for black women’s rights is a gain for the black liberation movement—a gain which helps to strengthen that movement as well…

“It is in the interest of all black people to join the struggle for the ratification of the ERA, as a way to advance the conditions of black women.”

black-women-support-equal-rights-amendment-era
President Gerald Ford and Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas at the signing ceremony for H.R. 6219, extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Gerald R. Ford White House Photographs)

Representative Barbara Jordan, the first Black Texan elected to Congress, was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, delivering a 1978 speech for the timeline extension. In the speech, Jordan argues:

“The Equal Rights Amendment is a mandate for change. It is a standard by which to measure our future legal and social constructs… The Equal Rights Amendment is for men and women. It is a constructive force for liberating the minds of men and the place of women. It is inclusive.

“The Equal Rights Amendment is about human values. It defines the standard by which future Congresses, legislatures, Presidents, Governors and courts will define human relationships. It amends the equal protection values of the 14th Amendment beyond race, color and national origin to include gender. It is about equality, and freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

“I favor the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Even the Black Panther Party supported the ERA. A 1980 editorial on the ERA in the Black Panther newsletter argued:

“Here in America, the most advanced technological society in the world, we are still in the dark ages as far as women’s rights are concerned. The Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee you as women full equality under the Constitution, has met some of the stiffest opposition from women whose views of themselves and their role in society has been distorted by a culture which still subtly teaches that women are the weaker sex. Poor and oppressed women in America and elsewhere in the world have always viewed their struggle for equality as part of the overall struggle for poor people and freedom. They have well understood that no society can be free unless all of its people are treated equally.”

These are just a few of the many Black women and organizations who spoke out in support of the ERA.

Black Women and the ERA Today

“It is indeed a myth that Black women were not in support of the ERA,” said Phillips. “The ERA would allow women legal recourse and protection under the law.” In a recent public talk, Phillips explained:

“The Equal Rights Amendment would allow women not only full citizenship under the law on the basis of sex, but would arm women with legal recourse to challenge inequities on the basis of sex and gender. Black women would benefit from this legislation in numerous ways.

“The pay gap is alarming and works to the benefit of white male laborers. Women of color experience intersectional oppression, which contributes to the wealth gap… Black women make less than men and have historically participated in the workforce at higher rates than the majority of women. The Equal Rights Amendment would address unemployment, voting  disenfranchisement, unequal pay practices and a host of other oppressions experienced by Black women…

“The Equal Rights Amendment will be a step in the right direction to challenge what bell hooks calls ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’ It will be a move toward the fight for mothers to get paid leave, affordable quality health care, and after school programs, paid sick days, fair pay and flexible work arrangements… When there is an offense against women’s bodies, the Equal Rights Amendment would serve as a systemic tool for protection…The Equal Rights Amendment would serve as a tool to also protect women prisoners subjected to abuse and various forms of discrimination…

“Black women have actually been critical, have been integral to political progress. We need continued advocacy from all to keep pushing in the fight for the constitutional ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.”

The Trump administration blocked recognition of the ERA, but supporters are fighting back in court and in Congress. When the 28th Amendment is finally recognized as part of the U.S. Constitution, Black women deserve significant credit for the ERA.

Up next:


If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.