In a letter sent to Ms. magazine on Aug. 25, 1982, an anonymous woman wrote about her experience attending a rally to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in North Carolina. The anonymous letter features a conversation the writer has a in a restaurant with a young girl who saw her “ERA now” pen:
“You must be for the ERA. Did you go to the rally?” the girl asks.
“Yes,” I answered. “Did you?”
“… I probably couldn’t have gotten anyone to take me anyway. I have real dumb relatives who don’t believe in equal rights … Have we ever had equal rights?”
This letter and several others are featured in Ms.’ newly released book, 50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution. For 50 years, Ms. writers and readers have urged the United States government to make anti-discrimination based on gender part of the Constitution.
Last year, a group of over 300 activists—half of whom were under 25—gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to celebrate 100 years since the initial signing of the ERA.
The fight continued on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, with an intergenerational group of over 200—primarily women—activists, who gathered at the Roosevelt House in Hunter College to again demand that the ratified ERA be placed into law.
To celebrate the launch of Ms. magazine’s 50th-anniversary book—a collection of photographers, poems, articles, and letters spanning the five decades of the “pathfinding magazine”—Ms. is on tour, with a series of talks across the country that engage with the feminist issues of today.
What became stunningly apparent and was echoed among the diverse panel at the Roosevelt House was how, for every step forward the feminist movement has taken in the last 50 years, recently, each day feels like we are being kicked back to the same fights we were having at the magazine’s inception. Panelist and former U.S. Rep Carolyn Maloney mentioned that any legislation specifically for women has always been a challenge to get passed.
Even before the panel began, it was clear that the New Yorkers in attendance were passionate about women’s rights issues. The auditorium was standing-room only, and new people continued to creep in and find small spaces to stand in the back until the doors were closed.
Rep. Gloria Johnson was in attendance. The Tennessee state legislator—currently running for U.S. Senate—is part of the “Tennessee Three,” alongside Rep. Justin Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, who protested gun violence after the Covenant School Shooting. Johnson spoke of the specific concerns her Southern constituents face daily in her state. In Tennessee, men kill more women than in most other states, according to Johnson. She also said lawmakers in states like hers are using their positions to “bully” trans children through hateful new laws targeting LGBTQ+ youth and parents.
The required 38 states have already ratified the ERA. However, Tennessee is not one of those states. Johnson—who stands 6’4″—promised to “stand tall for the ERA,” if elected in her state.
Katherine Spillar—executive editor of Ms. magazine and editor of the 50 Years of Ms. anthology —reminded the audience that 50 Years of Ms. is just as much about the future as the past. Spillar hopes the book inspires new readers to find ways to “fight better” as we navigate post-Dobbs movement building and the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and worldwide.
“The current SCOTUS wants to take us back to the 1700’s,” said Ting Ting Cheng, director of the Equal Rights Amendment Project at Columbia Law School. She said the U.S. has a “crack in the foundation,” but that the ERA could start to mend. “We cannot call ourselves a democracy without the ERA.”
Eleanor Smeal, another contributor to 50 Years of Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation president, drove home the point that the ERA has been ratified and that both the House and Senate have a joint resolution to pass it.
The U.S. is at an essential moment to finally make gender equality a part of the Constitution. All the speakers agreed on the necessity for feminists to find ways to push through the differences and find common ground to push legislation through. Carol Jenkins—a prominent journalist and immediate past president of ERA Coalition who also spoke at the event—shared that the moment she knew that the ERA was gaining real traction was when the coal miners union joined the cause. Jenkins and others insisted that coalition building across disenfranchised groups was pivotal in passing the ERA. Bella Ramirez, recent Hunter College Graduate and Sign4ERA petition leader, urged the audience to “listen to each other” and to always fight for a more feminist future.
The main goal of the evening was clear: In the next 50 years, feminist activists, writers, organizers and leaders will look back and be able to recognize the giant leap forward it was from the 50 previous years.
Watch a full recording of the event here:
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.