Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Commentator Collective

The E.R.A.

Published: The Commentator, No. 12, November 1976-January 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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“Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the U.S. or by any state on account of sex.” It’s such a simple statement, so full of simple justice that one wonders why this constitutional amendment has yet to be ratified. Well – a majority of those voting in N.Y. and N.J. in November of 1975 voted against state Equal Rights Amendments (both N.Y. and N.J. legislatures had already ratified the federal E.R.A.). The middle class-women who make up the bulk of the women’s liberation movement were shocked by the election results. They were prompted to comment bitterly about the lies resorted to by the STOP ERA people, the bit money (mainly from insurance companies) that funded the STOP ERA campaign, and more self critically, about their own complacency. In fact, they had conducted a defensive campaign around ERA, responding only to those issues raised by the STOP ERA organization. But perhaps more fundamentally, they labored under the illusion that women’s consciousness and that of many men would only advance in a straight line. They did not see the effect that a deteriorating economy could have in altering that consciousness. They failed to understand how the social circumstances of 1975 had deepened the chasm between middle and working class women or even that social circumstances mattered between sisters!


The impetus for equal rights legislation corresponded to tremendous economic expansion. As the benefits of this expansion filtered downward to the white working class black people began demanding their just share. The Great Society followed the War on Poverty in quick succession. Blacks took white trades to court broke the stranglehold of father-son unions and opened up trades like construction, not only to minorities, but to whites who formerly could not have gotten these jobs because they didn’t have the connections or the price of a union card. Open admissions opened up higher education, not only to minorities but to the children of white, blue collar workers who formerly didn’t stand a chance against the children of doctors, teachers, etc.

The challenge to zoning and other segregationist laws erected during and after Reconstruction was sparked by Rosa Parks who after a hard day’s work refused to give up her bus seat to a white person saying simply “My feet are tired”. The ensuing civil rights movement gave impetus to the women’s movement. Women too, entered business and the professions in ever increasing numbers. A token number of women made their presence alongside a token number of Blacks in the better paying, skilled, craft jobs. The issues were very similar. Equal educational opportunity. Equal employment opportunity. Equal advancement. Equal pay for equal work. Equal participation in the political process. The movements differed, however. The civil rights movement became the concern of all black people. Mostly educated, middle class, white women took up the cause of women’s equality. Little effort was made to incorporate the demands of blacks for equality into the fiber of the women’s movement. Rather the two movements were seen as “separate but equal”. Still less effort was made to relate the issues of women’s equality to that huge segment of the population left out of the social movements of the day – the white working class. Instead, working women, white and black, concerned with preserving their families in the face of increasing financial hardships of the 70’s saw a women’s movement characterized as being unconcerned with the family and most concerned with issues like advancing already privileged women into executive positions.

As the economy began to contract the attack on the family became more and more real. Inflation and the subsequent recession were blamed on government spending on social programs.

The tide of “public opinion” was directed against minorities who were portrayed as the undeserving beneficiaries of government windfalls. Women were bound to be caught up in the backlash.


The federal ERA had been quietly wending its way through state legislatures picking up ratification all along the way. The attempt to vote in state ERAs in N.Y. and N.J. brought Phyllis Schlafly and her bunch out of the wall. They succeeded in exploiting the fears and resentments of many working class women unable to comprehend the attack on their families’ welfare.

Fundamentally, the STOP ERA organization’s defense of the “advantages” of women’s dependent, protected position within the family contains the same flaws as did the arguments for slavery over a century ago. It was said that the slave did not have to worry where the next meal was coming from or about a roof over his or her head. Conditions for slaves varied as do conditions for women. Just as there were a small number of house slaves that “enjoyed” certain privileges, so there are a relatively small number of women who “enjoy” certain privileges. But the legal position of women remains one of subjugation (slavery being the most extreme form of subjugation). The ERA would not compel women to abandon their dependency. Economic necessity has done just that for most of the more than 40% of working women in the U.S.

Martha W. Lear, in her N.Y. Times Magazine article of April 11, 1976, “You’ll Probably Think I’m Stupid...” attempted to find out why so many women voted against N.Y. and N.J. ERAs and concluded that much of the reason had to do with how women perceive one another and themselves. She discovered enormous resentment of the organized women’s movement (the “women’s libbers”) on the part of working class women. “The sex issue became a class issue. That broad coalition (of ERA supporters) was transmuted, in the public eye, into a elitest minority fringe that didn’t give a damn about homemakers or women at the bottom of the labor market and would, by the force of its own ambitions, push all women out of the home and into jobs.” “Women’s libbers” worked in order to develop themselves and not because they had to...

The heart goes out to the supermarket clerk who said, bitterly: ’I would love not to have to get up at 7 o’clock every morning and go to work.’

The STOP ERA people exploited these sentiments by lie and innuendo. The fact is that women who must work especially need an ERA and women who don’t have to work won’t be forced to by an ERA. But–and there’s no way to get around it–work is the ultimate liberator! By work we mean women’s inclusion in production, that process which advances society. Of course, in order that working men and women can realize the full advantages of their labors, production itself will have to be liberated from private ownership. Until such time, though, the woman who has been dependent on a man all her life and suddenly must cope with the world by herself is completely unprepared. Unless she is independently-wealthy, a women is as subject as a man is to the financial crises that capitalism engenders. Unless women see the need to be fully included in the work force (and men must see that need too!), they will be unable to play an equal role in the fight to better conditions of labor. Men and women will both suffer as a consequence.


The STOP ERA folks are concerned with protecting women’s dependent status within the family, her “rights” to hot work, to custody of her children and alimony when her family breaks up. They have also expressed concern for the woman’s Social Security benefits once her source of support has died. Martha W. Lear rebuts:

Homemakers were warned that the ERA would force them to share equally in the financial support of the families. The record shows otherwise. In 22 states, including 7 that do not have an ERA, parental obligations are indeed mutual.

But the courts have consistently defined “mutual” in terms of each parent’s role, needs and earnings and nonmonetary contributions to the family welfare. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith have structured their marriage so that he is out working as breadwinner and she is home working as homemaker, the ERA mandates no change. The amendment simply sex-neutralizes the language of the laws, substituting the word “spouse” for “husband” and “wife” and thus removes the traditional legal assumption that all men are breadwinners and all women are homemakers. It is a case of the law catching up with life.

She goes on to outline concretely how in child custody and alimony suits, whether or not the state has an ERA, the courts are more and more reaching decisions based on individual criteria rather than on traditional sex stereotypes.

“Widows could lose the additional benefits they enjoy under currently structured Social Security laws.” Is there a woman in the STOP ERA movement that wouldn’t like to see widow’s benefits extended to men? (excluding those who disapprove of Social Security benefits altogether as a feature of the Welfare state.) Individual men have recently gone to court contesting the government’s sex bias in denying them benefits that widows would get in their place. Women’s position can only be strengthened by joining their effort.

The military draft for women is also a bogus issue. 1) Congress has always had the power to draft women. 2) The draft has been replaced with a volunteer army (a factor that could change overnight). These facts do not dispense with the question of women serving in the military, however. Both men and women should consider the nature of the war the U.S. involves itself in or starts. Is that war justified? A just war, such as the U.S. participation in WWII should be supported by men and women serving in whatever capacity they can. A just war, if propagated in a correct way, will never lack for volunteer fighters. The nation that would deny women an equal place ii that fight would be courting defeat. Unjust wars, such as the U.S. war of aggression against Vietnam should be opposed by all. Sex should be no criteria for service in wartime. The question is the nature of the war itself.


Not all opposition to the ERA comes from well-heeled, conservatives like Schlafly. Some leftists, notably the Communist Party (in the Soviet camp) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (in the Maoist camp) also oppose the ERA. Both the STOP ERA organization and the above parties argue that women would lose protections they currently enjoy under the law. They differ only in the protections they are concerned with.

While the STOP ERA people, have argued largely bogus issues (there is no legislation guaranteeing women custody of children or alimony etc.,–only court tradition) some leftists argue that women fought hard to secure legislation governing hours and conditions of labor; legislation that could be wiped out by an ERA. In fact when Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted forbidding discrimination in employment based on race, religion, national origin or sex, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission banned all protective labor laws that applied only to women. Although the question of protective legislation is legally closed in light of the above, the point is well taken. Equal rights laws can cut both ways. National minorities and women seeking affirmative action to overcome past discriminatory hiring, promoting and admissions practices have seen white men charge that they are being discriminated against under the aegis of equal rights laws! Which way the law cuts depends on the state of the movement. The women’s movement, like that of minorities, has never fought for privileges, only equality. Any movement in opposition to passage of the ERA helps maintain privileges for men that don’t even benefit most men. In the pamphlet “Why Women Need the ERA” by Diane Feeley, it is shown just how the law might apply...

In 1970 the Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women put out a memorandum on the ERA. It outlined the effect the amendment, if ratified, would have on existing legislation in various states. Where a law serves to restrict or limit the rights of one sex, that law would be unconstitutional; but where the law grants a right to one sex, the words of sex identification would be stricken from the law. This would extend rights to both sexes. That interpretation is an example of what women should fight for.

The case of Potlatch Forests Inc. v. Hays gives an indication of how such an extension works in practice. Arkansas state law provided that women be paid time-and-a-half for working more than eight hours a day, and the employers argued that federal antidiscrimination legislation superseded state law, allowing them to cease paying the women an overtime bonus. The court dismissed the complaint, pointing out that idle state law did not require women to be paid more than men. The employer could comply with both state and federal law by paying overtime rates to both men and women.

Certainly this sort of victory can be the only legitimate goal of a struggle for equal rights.


Those who enjoyed admission, employment and advancement because they were white and male no doubt deserved admission, employment and advancement. The point is that those Blacks and Latins and women denied admission, employment and advancement because they were Black, Latin and/or women did not deserve what they got. In spite of all that needs to be done, capitalist society does not find it profitable to do those things we need. Instead, it needs unemployment and the question then becomes, which segment of the population do we throw overboard? In better times, it sufficed to lock minorities and women out of employment. A fact, often overlooked, however, is that many white males with seniority are pounding the pavement today in spite of the fact that those last hired (minorities and women) were first fired. Today, more than ever, the working class cannot tolerate the scapegoating of women and minor-ties. We need one another in the struggle to better our lives and equality must be the basis of our unity.

The Equal Rights Amendment is fighting for its place in the U.S. constitution and needs the ratification of 4 additional states by 1979 in order to pass. The defeat of state ERAs in N.Y. and N.J. has spurred moves to rescind N.Y. and N.J.’s ratification of the federal ERA claiming that these state’s legislators have a mandate from the people.

The defeats the ERA has suffered obliges those who want its passage to examine the economic, political and social changes that have transpired between the 60’s and the 70’s and the effect those changes have had on the outlook of working class women. Our propaganda must take these factors into account if we are going to demonstrate how the ERA can provide women a useful legal weapon in the fight for economic, political and social justice.