Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

* * *

7. The Stakes
and the Players

By the 1930s, both the National Woman’s Party and its Equal Rights Amendment were out of steam; both were slowly fading away. The N.W.P.’s ally, the National Association of Manufacturers, was little help during this decade. In the 1920s business spokesmen had euphorically claimed to represent eternal principles and eternal prosperity; but, as is well known, the 1930s made this talk unpopular. The spotlight was focused on economic problems. Of the activists we have seen in previous chapters, mainly the organized businesswomen of the B.P.W. were still much concerned with the E.R.A.

The Second World War gave feminism a new lift, just as the First had done. Once again the full integration of women into the system became especially attractive, as war emphasized the need of a society in crisis for complete mobilization of human resources.

The lead came from the Republican Party, which was going to retain its vanguard role in this area right up to the late 1960s. Behind this was the formation of an alliance of sorts – of the same informal sort as we have already seen in connection with the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1920s. In 1940, for the first time a major party platform endorsed the idea of an equal rights amendment. It was the Republican Party. The Democrats had to follow suit four years later, in time for the next presidential election.

However, neither party ever specifically endorsed the Pure E.R.A. as proposed by the N.W.P. and the B.P.W. This claim later became routine with E.R.A. propagandists, until “everybody” knew it was so and repeated it ad lib; but it is a myth. The platform planks carefully approved an amendment for equal rights for women, its content not further specified. Neither the N.W.P. nor the B.P.W. could get more specific language into the party platforms precisely in order to leave the door open for attempts to reconcile some sort of E.R.A. with women’s labor legislation as well as with certain traditionalist notions about women’s role. When the B.P.W. tried to get the parties to endorse “a constitutional amendment providing unqualified equal rights,” both the Republicans and the Democrats deleted the crucial word. [1]

Still, it is probably true that the top leadership of the American political establishment was quite persuaded of the virtues of a Pure E.R.A., even if they had to draw back in practical politics. This opinion was held most firmly for over two decades by the main leadership of the Republican Party, for reasons that are quite clear.

Then, as later, the opposition to a Pure E.R.A., or to any E.R.A. at all, came from two disparate sources:

  1. the pressure of the trade-union movement (now in favor of protective labor legislation and therefore opposed to the Pure E.R.A.) and of pro-labor elements of various kinds, exercised through their links with the lib-lab left of the party structure, therefore strongest in sectors of the Democratic Party; and
  2. the pressure of traditionalist notions on women’s role in society as wife, mother, helpmeet, household slavey, etc., notions that were still dominant in a scattered fashion through most of the country.

In practice, these two motivations, while quite different in their roots, were intertwined for political effect, as often happens in Congress – intertwined sometimes out of ordinary demagogy, sometimes out of the ordinary American propensity for blurring social ideas. A spokesman for one motivation often mentioned the other also, to bolster the case. Two bisymmetric examples may be cited.

  1. In a nationally televised debate a woman union official of the AFL-CIO, after incisively demonstrating what the Pure E.R.A. would do to workingwomen, added a traditionalist appeal about women’s role. [2]
  2. Senator Sam Ervin, who believed that both blacks and females were all right in their place, was always quite willing to mention the labor appeal after orating about his fears for the American home.

Each type of speaker might use the other’s appeals in passing.

A consequence is that, if we consider the political patterns in Congress on this subject for the whole period between the end of the war and the beginning of the 1970s, the first impression is that the issue cuts across all liberal-conservative lines as well as across party lines. Certainly the liberal wing of Congress, such as it was, was fragmented by a three-way split, as we will see. But the situation in the Republican Party was simpler.

The traditionalist type of opposition to the E.R.A. was naturally significant from the small-town and rural areas and their parochial politicians; and a couple of Republican senators from heavily industrial areas like New York State were affected by labor’s position; but the bloc that was most easily emancipated from both of these pressures was the central bloc of Eastern-establishment Republicans, which was also the hub of the party leadership. And so, out of the criss-crossing of interests, ideas and power pressures, which made the issue a very thorny one on all sides, the most coherent lead came from the “purest” representatives of the power elite, untainted by either laborism or parochial traditionalism.

Only a few months after the end of the war, in July 1946, the issue was debated in the full Senate for the first time since the amendment had been introduced in its current form in 1923. The liberal-labor case against it was most cogently presented by Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, who was also moved to include an unusual comment on the social lineup in the controversy:

It is significant that testimony of sponsors of the pending proposal before the Senate committee shows the merest fragment of support from any person with industrial experience.

The supporting organizations ... are made up of professional, cultural and patriotic types, many of them with very limited membership – all far removed from the problems of the majority of wage-earning women ...

The opponents introduced no qualifying amendment; the vote took place only for-or-against the Pure businesswomen’s version of equal rights. The result was that the amendment was defeated through failure to get the required two-thirds. But a majority of the senators voted in favor, 38 to 35.

The large majority of yeas were Republicans; the overwhelming majority of the nays were Democrats (plus the Progressive, La Follette).

The central issue was fairly clear in the course of the debate. As one senator put it: should the rights of women be equalized down or up? It was not an abstract issue, though arguments tended to be formulated abstractly. Radcliffe of Maryland, the senator in charge of floor-managing the E.R.A. resolution, at one point responded incautiously to the charge that its open-ended language would destroy a host of state laws favoring women: “women,” he stated grandly, “are justly entitled to equality but no more.” The practical meaning for workingwomen was that their conditions would be equalized down, while some career women might be gainers in upward equalization in upper-echelon job opportunities.

There was an easy and common-sense solution to one part of the problem, a solution supported by virtually every women’s organization with the least pretense to liberalism. It was a test of the meaning of the political lineup over the E.R.A. The test was simply this: to pass a law with teeth providing for Equal Pay for Equal Work – pass it now, not merely promise action in some future year when a constitutional amendment might one day be ratified by the states.

The same session of Congress that acted on the E.R.A. was presented with an Equal Pay bill, a declaration of equal rights for women in the economic sphere. It had the advantage of not dividing women along stratified lines, for the B.P.W. favored this measure too. If the senators believed a fraction of the declamations in favor of Justice and Equality for women that were made on the floor in behalf of the E.R.A., the Equal Pay bill would have passed with near-unanimity. It needed only a simple majority, unlike the E.R.A. resolution which needed two-thirds. It would not need to be ratified by the states.

Yet the Equal Pay bill could not get to first base, in a Senate which voted by majority for the E.R.A.

“Look here, upon this picture, and on this ...” Throughout the story of the E.R.A., the reader should ask the following question. If two-thirds of both houses, and eventually three-quarters of the state legislatures, could be hopefully won over for the Pure E.R.A. – which presumably abolished every conceivable species of obnoxious discrimination against women, and did so wholesale – why could not a mere majority of Congress (without the added hurdle of the state legislatures) be won to remedy only a few of the most crying injustices still being practiced?

In the same context: why couldn’t an Equal Pay law, or even more sweeping abolition of sex discrimination, be adopted for the District of Columbia, by this same Congress?

Even a congresswoman, Sullivan of Missouri, rose in the House one day, October 12, 1971, to make this point a little bitterly about her pro-E.R.A. male colleagues. “It is easier,” she said, “to convince the overwhelmingly male Congress and legislatures to strike a gallant blow for women by professing to be for equal rights than it is to sell those same men on the merits of treating women fairly in substantive legislation.”

This suggests that there was something about the Pure amendment that made it quite acceptable to the same politicians who did not even pretend to be for Equal Pay. It suggests that there must have been a massive block of political motivation and social interest hidden beneath the Pure E.R.A.’s one-sentence blast. The fact that the E.R.A. could get a majority in the Senate (even if not two-thirds) raises this question sharply.

A few years later, the Washington political patterns were pushed even farther to the right with the fading of postwar illusions and the beginning of Cold War tensions and McCarthyite witchhunts. But for a while the E.R.A. did not falter and even forged ahead. As we will see, its main support still came from the established leadership of the Republican Party. Speeches in the Senate still orated about equal rights and Justice, while a bill for Equal Pay could not get past the same orators. Clearly this leadership of American politics expected something from the E.R.A. that was not immediately visible in its one-sentence blast about equal rights.

There was no mystery about what this latent meaning was to (say) the National Association of Manufacturers. If we move our attention from oratory over great principles to the practical question of dollars-and-cents, then we can learn the answer from the research economist Grace Hutchins. Using 1950 census reports and U.S. government agency figures, Hutchins calculated that, by paying lower wages to women than to men for similar work, the manufacturing companies realized an additional profit of $5.4 billion for the year. The extra profits thus gained from underpaying women formed 23 percent of all manufacturing company profits. [3]

These figures give some idea of the stakes, even if Hutchins’ calculations are rough-edged. At stake is almost a quarter of all manufacturing profits in a gigantic economic structure. Governments have been overthrown for five percent.

The size of this stake bears on two aspects of the story that have been discussed. It makes clear why a bill to (in effect) expropriate a quarter of manufacturing profits, through real Equal Pay for Equal Work, had no chance of passage. And it makes clear that the Republican Party leadership was substantially convinced that the Pure E.R.A. would not enforce equal economic rights for the mass of women workers, whatever advantages it might mean for a minority. It might get more women on juries, and ameliorate other antiquated and secondary discriminations, but it would not equalize-up where it counted, in the counting-houses.

In the first period of the E.R.A.’s career, in the 1920s, these billions had been the stake of the second party in the open alliance of the National Woman’s Party with the National Association of Manufacturers. The postwar world was different insofar as such a candid and public alliance was out of fashion. The new form of the N.W.P.-N.A.M. axis was now the de facto lineup of the B.P.W. organizations with the Republican Party leadership.

One other dollar figure would be useful to give this alliance its full refulgence. If manufacturing capital would lose something like several billions in profits given the enforcement of Equal Pay, how much would it gain, contrariwise, if the whole network of women’s labor legislation were destroyed throughout the states? In realistic terms, what was the cash value of the Pure E.R.A. in dollars and cents to the hardheaded enterprisers who backed it on the unphilosophical side?

In the absence of authoritative statistics, we have only a broad hint at the immensity of the stakes. A Labor Department report on one year, 1969, noted that in a single state, California violations of the overtime and minimum-wage provisions netted employers more than $6 million. Since this is the gain due to violations of the law, multiply this figure by several score to get the sum that would be gained if these laws were entirely removed. Again, multiply by several times to take account of the dozens of other items of labor legislation that would be destroyed by the Pure E.R.A. Finally, since the figure cited was for California only, multiply by another number in order to extrapolate for the other forty-nine states.

Obviously, whatever the exact figure, the stakes run at least into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and in all likelihood mount into the billions – for one year.

It may be urged that this profit windfall from the Pure E.R.A. would be partially offset by the amendment’s stimulation of the Equal Pay pattern. But there is an economic law that applies here in full force. When labor legislation is judicially destroyed, employers’ immediate actions enforce the results very quickly, if not instantly; for pay and work rules are in their hands. But if and when an E.R.A. is said to call for raised wages, it will be many a moon before the difference becomes visible in the pay envelope. At the time this is being written, Title VII has presumably erased sex discrimination, but the differential between women’s and men’s pay (the former being 64 percent of the latter) has not changed substantially. Anyway, it does not take an E.R.A. to explain the pressure for an Equal Pay law, for this pressure was bound to mount quite independently of the E.R.A. agitation. In fact, E.R.A. activity has functioned in part as a safety-valve lowering the pressure for an Equal Pay law.

In any case, the stakes were high enough to convince a broad assemblage of establishment leaders in the country, above all Republican wheels. Here are some examples.

Richard Nixon boasted of being an endorser of the Pure E.R.A. from at least 1950 on – when virtually every liberal Democrat in politics condemned it. In March 1950 Nixon wrote to an N.W.P. member in his district that he would give his “full support to enactment of the bill,” which was then being pushed in the House by Representative Katherine St. George. This early support won him high praise from the N.W.P., and gained their support of his Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom the Paulite party called “equality’s mortal enemy” (i.e., an enemy of the Pure amendment). Gerald Ford, whom Nixon later installed in the White House, was also an early supporter of the amendment, responding at the same time as Nixon to the N.W.P.’s inquiry with support for Katherine St. George’s operation: “From the facts at hand I believe your views and mine coincide on this Amendment ...” [4]

The Republican elder statesman, ex-president Herbert Hoover, endorsed the Pure amendment repeatedly beginning with the 1944 convention of the party. Eisenhower was the first president to include the amendment in his presidential program. Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew was a strong backer, as was Nelson Rockefeller. In the Senate, the E.R.A. campaign of 1950–1953 was going to be managed by that patriarchal figure of right-wing Republicanism in California, Senator William F. Knowland. Among the most vocal proponents of the amendment have been a number of Senate figures whose names were, for a whole era, synonyms for the respectable right wing of American politics: Eastland, Stennis, Mundt, Thurmond, McCarran, et al. On the Democratic side, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy have to be counted too. In 1968 George C. Wallace turned his attention away from combating civil rights for blacks and do-gooders, long enough to state: “If I am elected president of the U.S., I will do all in my power” for the Pure amendment. He ended this pledge with a tribute to – Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont, the rich socialite who had been one of the founders of the N.W.P.

One must ask whether these politician-pioneers of the Pure E.R.A., along with the National Association of Manufacturers, were converted to the noble objectives of human equality and justice by the sweet power of feminist arguments, or whether they knew indeed what they were doing.

* * *


1. This was reported in the B.P.W. organ Independent Woman, September 1952; the italics pointing to unqualified as the crucial word are added.

2. The speaker was Myra Wolfgang; the debate program was the PBS The Advocates, in 1972.

3. Grace Hutchins, Women Who Work (New York, 1935).

4. Letter, Richard Nixon to Helen Lee MacKellar, March 3, 1950; letter, Mildred Palmer to Natalie Shaffer, May 29, 1950; letter, Gerald Ford to Mrs. Stapleton Pelletier, February 27, 1950 – all in the N.W.P. Papers, Reel no. 96.

Last updated on 12 September 2020