Women and the Constitution
By Sharron Hannon
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 1-3
In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote husband John, importuning him to “remember the Ladies” in drafting the code of laws of the new nation.
However, the “ladies” were not remembered by the founding fathers. Eleven years after Abigail Adams’s letter, the framers of the Constitution drafted a document beginning, “We the people.” What they meant was, “We the men.” In 1787, women were not considered even three-fifths of a person, as male slaves were. Women were disfranchised and largely invisible in public life. It would take more than a hundred years of struggle to get the U.S. Constitution amended to allow women to vote; an amendment stating that women have equal rights with men has yet to be added, despite more than sixty years of trying.
In the fall of 1986, as preparations got underway for celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, a group of women approached former first lady Rosalynn Carter with the idea for a symposium that would “remember the ladies.” She lent her support and so, in February 1988, an overflow crowd of 1,500 women from every state and ten foreign countries gathered in Atlanta to study and discuss and call attention to the founding fathers’ omissions.
“Women and the Constitution: A Bicentennial Perspective” was sponsored by the Carter Center of Emory University in conjunction with the Carter Presidential Library and Georgia State University. Rosalynn Carter asked three former first ladies-Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Pat Nixon-to join her as convenors of the symposium. All agreed, although health problems prevented the latter two from actually attending the conference.
Nancy Reagan was also invited to be a convenor. She declined-understandably. For while attempts were
made to keep the conference scholarly and non-partisan, there was no way to avoid comparisons of women’s generally forward progress during preceding administrations and the retrenchment that has followed during the Reagan years. It was similarly impossible not to wonder what a change in White House tenants may mean for the future of issues like the Equal Rights Amendment, which was defeated three states short of ratification in 1982.
“We’ve become comfortable with our prejudices,” noted Rosalynn Carter in a pre-symposium press conference. “We need to be inspired to make our country better. I hope that’s something the next election can do.”
Though none of the presidential candidates attended the symposium (being busy campaigning in New Hampshire at the time), the organizers no doubt hoped to catch their attention by scheduling the event less than a month before Super Tuesday. They at least caught the attention of the media: 150 reporters and radio and TV people swarmed around the hotel where the conference was held-a surprisingly large number for a conference on women.
But then there were some big drawing cards: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Their presence drew attention to how far women have come since 1870, when Myra Bradwell was denied a license to practice law because she was a woman, and 1872, when Susan B. Anthony was arrested for trying to vote.
Women still have a long way to go, however. As Coretta Scott King noted in her address to conference participants, if black women were represented in Congress in proportion to their numbers in the general population, there would be
thirty black women in the U.S. House of Representatives and seven Senators. Instead, there is only one black woman in Congress: Rep. Cardiss Collins of Illinois.
Many conference speakers pushed for women’s increased involvement in politics, both as voters and candidates. “If you don’t run, you can’t win,” was the theme of Ferraro’s speech.
Former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug had a unique idea for speeding up women’s access to political power. “Let’s ask both parties to commit all open seats to women until some measure of equity is reached,” she suggested during the closing plenary. “Let’s ask that one Senator of the two from each state be female. Why not?”
Other speakers looked at the judicial system as an arena for advancing women’s rights, pointing out that it wasn’t until 1971 that the Supreme Court used the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to find sex discrimination unconstitutional. Since then, more than fifty cases have been heard by the Court relating to hiring, promotions, maternity leave, disability insurance, pension rights and seniority.
“Not all such challenges have been successful,” noted Justice O’Connor in her keynote speech. “But there is no question that the Court has now made clear that it will no longer view as benign archaic and stereotypic notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females.”
In the l980s, however, the number of sex discrimination cases being heard has declined. “There are not a lot of Fourteenth Amendment cases left to bring,” said Isabelle Pinzler, director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, in a panel discussion with other attorneys on the role of advocacy in promoting women’s rights. “Without the ERA, there won’t be much change.”
Another drawback to progress through the courts was raised by former EEOC chair Eleanor Holmes Norton: “We must depend on the generosity of a largely male judiciary.”
This is especially true of federal courts. Since 1981, President Reagan has filled 334 seats on the federal bench-and only twenty-seven of his appointees have been female.
So what about the Equal Rights Amendment? It was the topic of both a mini-plenary (“ERA: Was It Worth It?”) and a panel discussion (“Putting Women in the Constitution: The Future of the ERA”), and it was obvious from both sessions that there is no consensus on the future of the struggle for ratification.
There is not even consensus on the past. Some regard the 1972-1982 period of national focus on the ERA as the finest hour of the women’s movement.
“Never have women learned so much and moved so fast,” said panelist Erma Bombeck, who spent a year traveling with former White House Press Secretary Liz Carpenter to lobby in unratified states.
Others, however, resented what political scientist Janet Bowles termed the “artificial consensus” to make the ERA the centerpiece of the women’s movement. “The demise of the ERA gave feminists freedom to reassess other goals,” she said.
Eleanor Smeal, who as president of the National Organization for Women was the strategist behind the ERA Countdown Campaign, was unwilling to pause to argue the past.
“We must go forward,” she said. “The drive for total equality is still so needed. Statutes can be reversed. Executive orders overturned. What we knew then intellectually, we now know through experience-we need a constitutional guarantee.”
NOW, in fact, has already launched a drive for “the new ERA” and activists were busy circulating petitions among the conference participants. It was the only active organizing visible-a fact that troubled some.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend these resources and gather this talent without using it as a stepping stone,” said Margie Pitts Hames, an Atlanta attorney who argued Doe v. Bolton, the companion case to Roe v. Wade, which established the right to abortion in 1973. “I see no agenda, no plan, no direction. We’ll go back to our various places without mobilizing the energy I feel here.”
Hames and others had hoped the conference might at least generate some resolutions. And they were further disappointed by what they perceived as a decision to avoid issues like abortion rights, homelessness and the feminization of poverty, which were not directly addressed in any of the thirty-one panels or five mini-plenaries.
But the goals of the conference were academic, not activist; focused, not broad. What the organizers aimed to produce was not resolutions and a plan of action, but some serious scholarship on the conference topic which will be disseminated through various professional journals and through a secondary school curriculum being developed in conjunction with the Carter Center.
The research generated by the conference as well as audio and video tapes of the proceedings will be maintained by the Carter Center and the National Archives. Georgia Public Television is also putting together a documentary on the conference which will be shown on PBS stations nationwide.
For most conference participants, the best part was just being there-in one place at one time-with women who have been Cabinet members and served in Congress, who have argued or been plaintiffs in landmark court cases, who are deans of law schools and college presidents.
“It was a real high to literally rub elbows with so many incredible women,” said Heather Kleiner, who is working to revitalize the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Georgia.
It was impossible to come away from such a gathering not feeling empowered and energized. “This conference is a kind of political chicken soup,” noted Bella Abzug. “It helps you get out of bed in the morning and say, ‘I can conquer the day.'”.
Sharron Hannon is a Georgia-based freelancer who writes frequently on women’s rights issues.