ERA and the South
By Betsy Brinson
Vol. 2, No. 5, 1980, pp. 24-25
Early ERA advocate Crystal Eastman suggested in 1923 that “To blot out of every law book in the land, to sweep out of every dusty courtroom, to erase from every judge’s mind that centuries old precedent as to women’s inferiority and dependence and need for protection; to substitute for it at one blow the simple new precedent of equality, that is a fight worth making, if it takes ten years.”
Fifty-seven years later the goal of equal rights for women is still not yet realized within our system of law.
After years of almost no movement, significant gain was realized in the last decade. In 1972,Congress voted to send the resolution to the states to secure the required 38 state votes needed to make ERA the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thirty-five states have voted “aye” but three additional states are needed to succeed.
But the last few years seem to have produced a stalemate for the campaign. No state has ratified since 1977. Of those 13 states yet to endorse, not surprisingly the Southern states represent a major block to be persuaded. Indeed only Tennessee and Kentucky have ratified. Tennessee has since rescinded; Kentucky’s legislative attempt to rescind was vetoed by the acting governor Thelma Stovall.
The opposition has not only increased its legislative lobbying effort, but it has expanded its attack to the court system itself with challenges aimed toward disenfranchising state legislative votes supporting ERA. These lawsuits unfortunately require ERA proponents to divert needed energy and funds from the legislative forum.
Who opposes ERA? Increasingly we witness the opposition of economic interests in insurance and banking which
see the passage of ERA as a major threat to the restructuring of benefits and credit mechanisms. It comes as no surprise that such wealthy entrepreneurs will undermine basic human values especially in a period of economic instability.
Equally significant is the opposition rising from fundamental religious factions who fear that ERA will undermine the more traditional male and female stereotypes. The r e c e n t M or in on excommunication of Sonia Johnson who was found guilty of defying church authority for espousing ERA support is only one example. What is even more disturbing than Ms. Johnson’s “trial” and ouster is the Mormons’ callous disregard for the basic American adherence to free speech and due process values in order to preserve their own authority.
The anti-ERA takeover of the Virginia meeting to elect delegates to the national Conference on the Family is another example. Ironically it was Alice Paul’s desire to strengthen the family and to improve the future of American children which motivated her to first write the ERA in 1923.
Proponents are unwilling to publicly concede that securing three more states may not be possible by March, 1982 given the political realities of the times. But, in the spirit of their feminist foremothers, ERA strategists are now laying the groundwork for a long-term campaign designed to secure eventual success – whether it takes two years ot twenty. That strategy has already begun to move into the political arena.
Witness the state of Virginia in last fall’s legislative elections. Careful analysis preceded the targeting of several races for funds and volunteers on behalf of pro-ERA candidates. Telephone banks were set up in which calls to every registered voter in selected districts were conducted in order to identify the pro-ERA voters. A follow-up contact by telephone or mail was made to each pro-ERA voter to insure their support at the polls for the preferred candidate. In all targeted races, pro-ERA candidates were successful.
In other Virginia campaign activity, pro-ERA petition drives were conducted in legislative districts where key anti-leaders will stand for re-election in 1982. The purpose of the petition drives was to identify pro-ERA voters for lobbying and to identify voters ‘who can lay the groundwork now for anti-legislators’ defeat in the next elections.
Similar targeting is now taking place in states that will hold legislative elections in 1981. These include the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
The second movement which gives rise to encouragement is the increased coalition-building currently taking place. New constituencies among homemakers and religious groups are committing themselves to the struggle. Expanded efforts of labor unions toward education and advocacy of their membership offer hope too for the campaign. One specific example is in Virginia where the Virginia Education Association and the United Food and Commercial Workers’ leadership spearheaded the recent rally where thousands of workers joined together at the Virginia General Assembly to support ERA. Similar organizing efforts are planned for other unratified states.
The influx of minority women and civil rights groups is also significant. Increasingly we see evidence of shared communication and cooperation which did not previously exist in support of ERA among racial and ethnic minorities. There is clearly a growing recognition by minority women themselves to the same pronouncement expressed by Essence editor Marcia Ann Gillespie when she said, “I did not stand up for my rights as a Black person in America to be told that I have to sit down because I’ma woman”.
And in conclusion, let us not forget that the idea of equal rights is still a revolutionary concept. As sociologist Jessie Bernard so aptly reminds us: “Women’s revolutions, unlike men’s, are not apocalyptic. Women do not expect Armageddon. We are accustomed to a relatively slow pace.” Over the years, we have had our successes; we will succeed too with ERA.
Betsy Brinson is the founding director of ACLU s Southern Women’s Rights Project. She was recently selected as one of Ms. magazine’s “Women to Watch in the 80’s.”