Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

* * *

Hal Draper

A Personal View

This preface reflects my personal experience, and so it must be written in the singular, though all matters of view and interpretation are shared by the two authors.

The intellectual begetter of this book was Anne Draper; and thereon hangs an essential point.

Anne Draper was, for many years before her death in 1973, one of the ablest of trade-union organizers in this country, working for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in her last years and before that for the Hatters & Millinery Workers Union. Her work was by no means confined to women workers, but the composition of the two unions’ membership gave her an experience in this field which few could match. This was a valuable background, but it was not the experience which impelled her into the subject matter of this book. In between her stints for the above-mentioned two unions, she went to work as research director for the California State Federation of Labor, for about six months. Here she immediately ran into a problem which gave her a brand-new education on the subject of workingwomen.

As the State Fed’s research director, she was immediately called on to testify at the hearings routinely organized by the state commissions entrusted with the enforcement of labor laws for women, especially in agricultural labor. She naturally learned all there was to know about these situations, and just as naturally became labor’s chief advocate at these hearings. Above all, the problems of workingwomen in the fields hit her very hard, the more she learned of the unbelievable callousness of the agrotycoons to the conditions of their “hands,” and also the indifference of many trade unions.

Even after she left the State Fed and went to work as West Coast representative of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, she continued work on the issue, and to this end helped to establish the first support group for the farm workers’ organization efforts (Citizens for Farm Labor, centered in Berkeley). This was well before farm labor became a popular issue among liberals, and before Cesar Chavez’s name became well known. (I still have the black-eagle banner which the Farm Workers’ Union voted to honor her work.) My own connection with her activity was mainly that of a listening ear as she talked over her problems; what this means is that I received an education too, on the side. [1]

When the contemporary feminist movement started growing, Anne Draper reacted by pioneering the establishment of a new kind of organization for trade-union women. Called Union W.A.G.E., its full name was Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality. We will come back to its work in Appendixes A and B.

The only labor laws that could be utilized by the farm workers’ union and its well-wishers were the existing legislative provisions for special protection for women workers. As we will see later, such legislation has often been important, in the history of advancing labor legislation, as an opening wedge: in one way or another, the gains made by women workers were eventually extended to all workers. This pattern has been immensely important to the labor movement. But in particular where working conditions are specially horrendous, the legislation for workingwomen is specially important for reasons far more immediate.

Anne Draper learned very quickly what few city dwellers know, that for workingwomen in the fields, and not only in California, not war but work is hell – a special torment. But nobody wanted to be told that. At first, when she was as ignorant of the facts as most people were, she listened almost in disbelief to the testimony of the women workers at the state commission hearings, testimony mostly given in the foreign accents of Mexican- and Filipino-Americans. Then she came to know their conditions firsthand. All this has to be mentioned for background, but it is still not the present subject.

What is important for us at this point is the following: as the new feminist movement coalesced around the demand for the Equal Rights Amendment, Anne Draper discovered that these alleged feminists were the most vicious and implacable enemies of every goal of decent conditions for which the farm workingwomen were fighting and for which trade-union women had ever fought.

Everyone knows now why this is so: the “New Feminists,” largely businesswomen and professional women and other upwardly mobile types, who had taken the E.R.A. as their banner, decided that every kind of “special protective legislation” for women had to be rooted out and destroyed on the ground that it was incompatible with their Amendment.

For Anne Draper (and so incidentally for me) the issue was posed most starkly in terms which you, dear reader, may think beneath your dignity and even – well, unrespectable. It was about ... Toilets.

For years the workers who pick our cheap vegetables (for cheap wages) had been demanding that the growers provide a minimum amenity for workingwomen who had to spend the whole day working in the fields in order to live, even if they sometimes had to carry their small children along with them. One of the simplest things they asked for was the provision of portable toilets in the fields. And for years this request had been refused by the growers; it would cost too much money. The union did not fail to point out what this meant in terms of sanitation, not only with respect to the workers but also to the farm products; it pointed out, to uninterested employers, that it meant unsanitary products for consumers and a life of humiliation for the farm workers. For all these years the farm workers had been unable to convince the state commissions that toilets in the fields were a minimum requirement for decent working conditions.

And now here was a self-styled women’s movement that fought just as bitterly as any of the growers’ organizations against any legislation in the interest of workingwomen, and threatened to destroy what legislation already existed. A “women’s movement”? Movement of which women?

Anne Draper was well acquainted with university women who were fighting against sex discrimination in the appointment and promotion of professors. In fact she had been involved in the first attempts to establish a local of the Teachers Union on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, one of whose main aims would be to oppose sex discrimination. Now the E.R.A. feminists were maintaining loudly that equality for women in the professions could not be achieved except on a basis that destroyed the only immediate hope of workingwomen for an improvement of their conditions ...

Were toilets in the field really incompatible with sex equality on the university faculty? Did a woman professor have to help destroy the farm workers’ efforts in order to be able to make her own demands for justice on the job?

Toilets in the field are a paradigmatic issue in another way. Under the conditions set by circumstances and the authorities, it could be fought for only as a “special protective” law for women workers. But everyone knew that it could be achieved in practice only as a gain for all workers. Once the growers had to provide toilets in the fields, no one expected their use to be confined to women. The union could not win this demand for women without winning it also for all. And this is what has happened again and again in the history of labor struggles.

For the E.R.A. feminists it was not necessarily only a matter of consistent legalism. Not infrequently (see, for example, the early issues of Ms magazine) an erudite woman professor would explain that, morally speaking, it was insulting to all womanhood to believe, as the labor movement allegedly did, that women were such paltry weak creatures as to need “special protective” devices. They explained that it was the usual assumption of male mastership. Anne Draper was quite capable of dealing with this profound thought on its own philosophic basis, but she often preferred to ask a different question. Suppose the women professors who wrote this stuff had no women’s rooms of their own but had to squat in the school yard ... (I warned you that this subject was not respectable.) Well, in short, would the aforesaid women academics feel so confidently philosophic about it all? In fact, this is a sort of “thought experiment,” which provides its own solution.

* * *

This is being written not long after I read the moving book by Professor Sylvia Hewlett, A Lesser Life [2] – a book which is a prerequisite for everyone concerned with this issue. In fact, the title of this preface is deliberately copied from Hewlett’s introductory section. It was A Personal View for Hewlett not because its viewpoint was peculiar to her, but because it explained how she had actually come to see the issues. In her case, the governing discovery was that a woman was debarred in practice from achieving a career (in her case as a professor of economics) or at least achieving the upper rungs of a career in accordance with her ability, unless she gave up any idea of also functioning as a normal mother and wife along the way. In her case, the revelation was the attitude of the E.R.A. feminists toward such a simple demand as maternity leaves – a demand, moreover, which she found to be already achieved in most of the advanced countries of the world. (There is much more in Hewlett’s book, but maternity leave will suffice as the example of the kind of “special protective” provision which aroused the bitter enmity of the people she knew as “feminists.”)

Hewlett does a masterly job of laying out the issues and explaining, both in socio-economic terms and in human-personal terms, what is wrong with the approach taken by the contemporary American feminist movement. She makes an unanswerable case for the necessity, not merely the desirability, of “special protective” provisions for women at work. I would gladly devote a chapter to summarizing her case, except for the belief that you would do much better, dear reader, to read it yourself in all its details. Remember that Hewlett is concerned with, and addresses herself to the lot of, women in professional and business careers much like the women who have put the E.R.A. on their banner; Hewlett’s references to the mass of women workers in this country are sympathetic but very few. She has come to her conclusions from a direction entirely different from that of Anne Draper. But more important is this: she comes to a central conclusion in which, alas! she abandons the field of “equal rights” altogether.

This is a deeply disappointing conclusion, even though it takes up little space in her book. It is no doubt utilized by her opponents to help vitiate the rest of her work. They convinced her that she had to choose between “social feminism” and equal rights, and that if she opted for social feminism (as she understood it) she had to let equal rights go.

Anne Draper faced this problem too, of course, but adopted an entirely different solution: a proposed Equal Rights Amendment that did not destroy legislation necessary to women workers. She did not have to invent this proposal from scratch; it had come up more than once in the history of the E.R.A., and we will see in the ensuing pages that it has appeared in at least four forms. But Professor Hewlett apparently knows little about the hidden history of the E.R.A. and never refers to the alternative versions of the Amendment. On the other hand, the proposals for a workingwomen’s E.R.A. will be important for the present book.

Professor Hewlett’s difficulty becomes apparent as she discusses one of the most enlightening cases that showed the meaning of the E.R.A. movement. This was the 1982 case of Lillian Garland, a Los Angeles bank employee who, after bearing a child by Caesarean section, was certified by her doctor as able to return to her job. Only – the bank informed her that her job had been filled and there was no other position open for her. She had not even known that she would have to choose between having a baby and making a living. Evicted from her apartment for lack of money, she lost custody of the child to its father, for lack of resources to care for it.

A state office then decided that the bank had acted illegally, for a 1979 California law gave a woman in her position up to four months of unpaid leave with job maintenance. The bank thereupon challenged the constitutionality of the law, arguing, on “E.R.A. grounds,” that it was sex-discriminatory. In this action the bank was joined by the state Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. And N.O.W. also jumped in to support this coalition against Garland, with a brief of its own.“Most women’s rights groups,” says Hewlett, sided with the bank and its employer brigade plus the feminist phalanx. There were over 200 other such cases pending in the state. And she concludes:

It is my guess that if she [Garland] knew where NOW stands on this issue, she would pass up feminism and throw equal rights out of the window – along with the ERA. [3]

She concludes her chapter with a “lesson”: “that feminism should not be equated with equal rights and that sometimes women have to be treated unequally if they are to have a fair deal as mothers and workers.” [4] Throughout, she identifies “equal rights” wholly with the E.R.A. as she knows it.

Anne Draper never fell into this trap. She used to argue, in debates with N.O.W.-type feminists, that the word equal need not be turned into a code-word meaning same and identical. We all know that this is true in many other cases. The male-female difference is distinctive, of course, and so analogies involve problems. But consider: if we are to provide “equal” access to (say) public buildings for all persons regardless of physical differences, does this laudable equality debar us from requiring a ramp approach which would be useful mainly for disabled persons? On the contrary, if disabled persons are not provided with a ramp access, do they still enjoy “equality” of access?

If this line of thought applies to disablement (which is not usually a natural condition), does it not apply ten times more strongly to the natural conditions faced by women in the course of normal lives as mothers and wives? N.O.W.-type debaters, to be sure, angrily denounced this argument as equating femininity with disablement, therefore proving that they were seeing the matter upside-down. The real moral is that femininity, which should have far more rights than any deviant physical condition, has been deprived of these rights in our American society, and therefore has been operationally deprived of equality of condition.

For women to enjoy equal rights with men, they must have equal opportunity to be different. It is a male-sexist mind-set to believe that maternity (for example) is an impermissible deviation from normal human conduct, to be shunted off to a specially “disabled” section of the population. Professor Hewlett shows again and again how the E.R.A.-type feminists share with sexist males the same view of a “normal” human life, and why therefore the typical career-woman feels that motherhood and a once-normal family life can be no part of it. Hewlett calls these women “male-clones,” and her analysis of this phenomenon is a triumph of thought leavened by experience.

The lines of battle drawn up about the E.R.A. do not show only two camps, only two viewpoints. The choice is not only between the N.O.W.-type feminists and what Professor Hewlett calls a kind of “social feminism” opposed to equal rights. For years there was a third viewpoint prominent among social-feminists, until it was overshadowed by the new sort of feminism that burgeoned in the 1960s. It was this third approach that Anne Draper sought to implement in founding Union W.A.G.E. and allied activities. Now that E.R.A.-type feminism, along with the E.R.A. itself, is in considerable confusion, it is especially important to listen to this third approach.

That is what the hidden history of the E.R.A. will serve to show, in the chapters to follow.

* * *


1. An exception: we collaborated to produce a booklet on the connections between the growers and the University of California, The Dirt on California: Agribusiness and the University, by Anne Draper and Hal Draper (Berkeley 1968).

2. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, A Lesser Life; The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America (New York, Wm. Morrow, 1986); citations are from the paperback edition (New York, Warner Books, 1987) with an afterword.

3. Ibid., 146.

4. Ibid., 148.

Last updated on 12 September 2020