Reps. Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley Lead Fight for ERA—100 Years After Its Introduction

ERA advocates have waged a 100-year fight to get gender equality enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. A new generation has picked up the mantle.

Reps. Pressley and Bush, co-chairs of the House ERA Caucus. (Courtesy of the Office of Congresswoman Cori Bush)

Updated Dec. 13 at 1:15 p.m. PT.

Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) convened an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Centennial Reception Exhibit at the Library of Congress on Dec. 6—one week before of the 100th anniversary of the Equal Rights Amendment’s first introduction in the House of Representatives by Susan B. Anthony’s nephew in 1923.

As ERA Caucus co-chairs, Bush and Pressley saw the reception especially as “an opportunity to highlight the history and pay tribute to the Black and brown women who have been at the forefront of the ERA fight yet were seldom recognized,” according to Bush’s digital press secretary Karla Santillan—echoing their intention for the Caucus’ founding in March of this year.

The “100 Years (and Not One More) March and Rally” ERA activation on Dec. 13. (ERA Coalition / X)

The exhibit featured artifacts from the century-long struggle to pass the ERA: photographs and documents of milestones and movement leaders, including Mary Church Terrell, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, Patsy Mink and Barbara Jordan. Attendees, including ERA Caucus members and advocacy group leaders, had the opportunity to “sift through the pages of history while making history,” said Pressley, as they prepared for the march and rally planned for Dec. 13 in the nation’s capital.

The artifacts on display were part of the Library of Congress’ National Women’s Party (NWP) records. NWP originated in the struggle for women’s suffrage early in the 20th century and turned its focus to passing the Equal Rights Amendment once suffrage was achieved through the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

The ERA Centennial Reception Exhibit was part of the ERA Caucus’ efforts that Bush described as setting “its own organizing table.”

“We’re not asking people to do their homework,” Bush said. “We’re providing them with information, we’re providing them opportunities to meet with those that are organizing on the issue, historians, activists, leaders in the space to make it easier for them to be able to speak to it in their districts, but also to be able to work with their state legislators on it.”

We won’t stop until the ERA is officially part of the Constitution. We owe it to our daughters, to the next generation, to those who fought before us.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.)

A strong push from the local and state levels is needed to motivate federal officials to support advancing the ERA to see constitutional equality, said Bush. “We won’t see this change happen even when we take back over the majority. … We won’t be able to get this through and signed by the president” unless we mobilize with momentum—starting at the grassroots level. That “takes people understanding why we need this, how it affects me at my kitchen table, at the grocery store and on my job—how it affects me when I go to the doctor’s office…”

Pressley echoed the emphasis on keeping “the drumbeat up about it,” which she described as essential in terms of the ERA and its relevance in the 2024 election and its ability to feature more prominently.

“What I want is for all organizations, certainly feminist organizations and all organizations that care about equality, is to name this as a tool for equality—so in every room, if you’re talking about the racial wealth gap, if you’re taking about the wage gap, if you’re talking about gender-based violence, domestic violence, the ERA needs to be named.”  

“If you’re talking about LGBTQ discrimination—you know, our freedom and our destinies are truly tied—this is an intersectional fight,” Pressley continued.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) speaks during a news conference to announce a joint resolution to affirm the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment on Capitol Hill on Jan. 31, 2023. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Bush recounted that as a nurse, she saw firsthand “how many of our trans community members … do not want to tell their history to the doctor,” which compromises the quality of their care.

And the importance of the ERA as a policy tool took on particular urgency with the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022, as it has been recognized as a mechanism for protecting abortion rights and safeguarding women’s health and bodily autonomy.

In every room, if you’re talking about the racial wealth gap, if you’re taking about the wage gap, if you’re talking about gender-based violence, domestic violence, the ERA needs to be named.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Dec. 6 holds a photo of Coretta Scott King, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson at the National Women’s Conference in November 1977. (Bonnie Stabile)

People need to understand how the lack of protections that the ERA would afford affects them in “being able to take ownership and have the autonomy of your own body, of your own decisions,” Bush continued. “That’s how we’ll get this done when we have a majority.”

“For Black and Brown and Asian and Indigenous women and all women… it (also) affects our paychecks,” said Bush. Understanding how the ERA could help close the pay gap—especially for women of color, for whom that gap is most acute—could help marshal the support needed to advance the amendment.

While various polls show that voters overwhelmingly support the Equal Rights Amendment, the urgency expressed by Reps. Bush and Pressley at the Library of Congress constitutes a call for action to prevent the further rollback of an array of rights for those historically underrepresented groups whose rights have yet to be fully realized.

Pressley offered further means for contextualizing the importance of advancing the ERA, underscoring that we have been in a 100-year fight just to get gender equality enshrined in the Constitution. “How demoralizing—what a grave injustice,” she said.

“We have earned our place in history, but it is a damn shame that we are still fighting for equality. It is so demoralizing not to see yourself reflected back in the founding document of this country. And Lord knows, we have been on the front lines of every movement in the work to advance justice, equality, liberation and freedom for everyone, while ours has been sacrificed,” said Pressley.

Pressley highlighted the multi-pronged approach necessary to build momentum and forge ahead. She advanced a “’discharge petition,’ to compel the House to hold a vote on H.J. Res. 25, her joint resolution to affirm the ratification of the ERA and enshrine it as the 28th Amendment…” and “remove the arbitrary deadline for ratification of the ERA.”

(Courtesy of the Office of Congresswoman Cori Bush)

On the discharge petition, said Pressley, “I think our last numbers were at about 127 … We’re being exhaustive because the women of this country are exhausted, so we are leveraging every tool available.”

For her part, Rep. Bush “introduced a resolution urging the archivist of the United States, Colleen Shogan, to certify the state ratifications, and publish the Equal Rights Amendment in the federal register, cementing it as a formal part of the U.S. Constitution,” despite the existence of what ERA proponents believe to be an arbitrary deadline.

There is also a petition drive to demonstrate public support for the ERA to Congress.

“I think what we are doing is reanimating the issue,” said Pressley, “making it more dynamic. Many women of color “never cared about this movement before,” she said, but now “because Representative Bush and I are leading it, they feel seen.”

It is so demoralizing not to see yourself reflected back in the founding document of this country.

Rep. Pressley

ERA expert Julie Suk, professor of law at Fordham University and author of We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment, also spoke at last week’s convening. Suk highlighted the roles of both Republican and Democratic women in advancing the ERA over the last century and questioned whether democracy itself could survive if the Constitution remains “stuck in the patriarchal past.” 

“Misogyny and bigotry need to be written out of the Constitution,” said Suk, adding that it would be unprecedented for the ERA to be left out given that it has met the strictures of Article 5 (passage by two-thirds of each house of Congress and approval by three-fourths of the states).

Of 33 constitutional amendments proposed by Congress, 27 have been ratified by the states, including the first 10 which make up the Bill of Rights, “thereby making them part of the Constitution.” According to Suk, the seven-year deadline for ratification was an effort to thwart democracy and constitutes an abuse of power.

“The Supreme Court has lost its way,” said Suk, and has compromised “women’s ability to live freely in the United States. … Congress can bring us into the 21st century.”

Former Rep. Carolyn Maloney (in green scarf) with Rep. Bush at the “100 Years (and Not One More) March and Rally” ERA activation on Dec. 13. (Dr. Nancy O’Reilly / X)

There were shoutouts to women whose work has served to advance the cause of women’s equality:

  • Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) led the charge for women in the workplace, and was pictured among the artifacts in a 1970s photo of women marching for the ERA.
  • Ellie Smeal, in attendance for the exhibit, publisher of Ms. and former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), was recognized by Bush for her over five-decade fight for the ERA, including the orchestration of the 1978 march of 100,000 to extend the deadline on ERA.
  • Alice Cohan, political director of Feminist Majority Foundation, was also thanked for being part of the fight.
  • Former Reps. Caroline Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jackie Speier, (D-Calif.), who came to Reps. Bush and Pressley and said, “We want you to take it from here.” “I am so grateful for them having carried the mantle all those years,” said Pressley, “and then in their retirement to think about each of their legacy pieces of legislation and to say, ‘I want a Black woman to take this from here. Women do think that power is meant to be shared.”

“We won’t stop until the ERA is officially part of the Constitution,” said Bush. “We owe it to our daughters, to the next generation, to those who fought before us.”

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Bonnie Stabile, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, where she founded and directs the Gender and Policy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @bstabile1.