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5 Visionaries of the Equal Rights Amendment

These women have kept hope alive for a constitutional right to equality for almost 100 years

spinner image Women speaking at a press conference
Eleanor Smeal speaks during a news conference to call for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Like relay runners who guard the Olympic torch from its ancient Greek origins to its modern host city, over nearly a century, a succession of committed women has kept a fire in their hearts blazing, determined to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

Mere months after winning the right to vote in August 1920, feminist leaders shifted their focus to achieving absolute equality.

Here are some of the women who, over time, have been the keepers of the flame and key dates in their struggle:

Sept. 25, 1921, Crystal Eastman

spinner image Crystal Eastman
Historic Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Born: June 25, 1881, in Marlborough, Massachusetts

Died: July 8, 1928, in Erie, Pennsylvania

What happened: After a successful campaign to win the right to vote, members of the National Woman's Party, including Crystal Eastman and Alice Paul, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment and announced they were ready to take the proposal to Congress.

Rep. Daniel Anthony (R-Kan.) a nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, proposed the amendment Dec. 13, 1923. Senate Minority Whip Charles Curtis (R-Kan.), who later became vice president under President Herbert Hoover, was its Senate sponsor. A version of the amendment was proposed in each session of Congress until 1970.

Eastman was a labor lawyer, writer and organizer.

"When she spoke to people — whether it was a small committee or a swarming crowd — hearts beat faster,” said Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation from the 1930s into the 1950s.

Eastman wrote a prescient book, Work Accidents and the Law, a year before the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 garment workers. She also drafted the first workers’ compensation law.

She and younger brother Max launched the radical arts and politics magazine The Liberator, and she cofounded the organization that evolved into the American Civil Liberties Union. Eastman, who died at 47 of kidney disease, urged socialists to foster revolution and embrace joy.

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Aug. 10, 1970, Shirley Chisholm

spinner image Shirley Chisholm
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Born: Nov. 30, 1924, in New York City

Died: Jan. 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida

What happened: Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) delivered her For the Equal Rights Amendment speech to the House of Representatives, saying that a constitution written without input from the nation's founding mothers or founding fathers of color is incomplete.

Chisholm, elected in 1968 as the first African American congresswoman, said it was not too late to finish the job by passing the ERA.

"Of course, laws will not eliminate prejudice from the hearts of human beings,” she said. “But that is no reason to allow prejudice to continue to be enshrined in our laws, to perpetuate injustice through inaction."

Chisholm spent her life pursuing social justice along with educational opportunities for people of color and became the first African American from a major party to run for president. Despite an underfinanced campaign, she entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 delegates, 10 percent of the total.

With a Constitution that only legally protected white, male interests, she said, “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt."

March 22, 1972, Martha W. Griffiths

spinner image Martha Griffiths
Ed Clark/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Born: Jan. 29, 1912, in Pierce City, Missouri

Died: April 22, 2003, in Armada, Michigan

What happened: The Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment to send to the states for ratification, and Rep. Martha W. Griffiths (D-Mich.) became known as the “Mother of the ERA."

During her two decades serving in the House of Representatives, she resurrected the Equal Rights Amendment. Though introduced in every session from 1923 to 1970, it had become trapped each time in the House Judiciary Committee.

But in 1970, she filed a discharge petition, rounding up the signatures of a majority of House members, to get the resolution out and onto the floor, where it passed. After the Senate added a provision exempting women from the draft, representatives and senators in a conference committee could not agree to a version before Congress adjourned for the year.

After tweaks to the wording, Griffiths reintroduced the ERA in the 92nd Congress. The House approved it in late 1971 and the Senate a few months later. That's when Congress sent it to the states for approval with a 1979 deadline.

Griffiths was well aware that many women of her day feared equality because men controlled their purse strings. Still, she urged all citizens to be brave and stride forward: “Give us a chance to show you that those so-called protective laws to aid women — however well intentioned originally — have become in fact restraints, which keep wife, abandoned wife, and widow alike from supporting her family."

 

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July 9, 1978, Eleanor Smeal

spinner image Eleanor Smeal
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Born: July 30, 1939, in Ashtabula, Ohio

Residence: Arlington, Virginia

What happened: As president of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal helped organize a march in Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment.

The event drew more than 100,000 men and women who stood together to demand an extension to the arbitrary 1979 deadline that Congress set for three-quarters of the states to ratify the ERA. A reporter covering the event noted that the unexpectedly large crowd overwhelmed everyone, from organizers who delayed the start, to police who closed all of Constitution Avenue instead of half.

Robust participation showed Congress that this was the will of the people, and the deadline for the states to pass the ERA was extended to June 30, 1982.

Smeal, now 80, led the National Organization for Women three times from the late the 1970s to the late ‘80s. She went on to establish the nonprofit Feminist Majority Foundation, is publisher of Ms. magazine, and has stood on the forefront of a host of important legal victories, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

"This is just the beginning,” Smeal said at that long-ago ERA march. “Liberty for women is not an idea. It is not just a hope. It is a spirit that lives in each one of us." 

 

March 20, 2017, Pat Spearman

spinner image Pat Spearman
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Born: June 1955 in Indianapolis

Residence: North Las Vegas, Nevada

What happened: Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman, a Democrat, breathed new life into the moribund ERA with its passage in the state Assembly and earlier in the state Senate. It had been more than three decades since a state had ratified it.

Spearman sponsored the successful resolution, making Nevada the 36th state to ratify the amendment and paving the way for Illinois and Virginia to become the 37th and 38th states within the next three years. Now three-quarters of U.S. states have approved the amendment.

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to do away with the 1982 deadline for the ERA's passage that a previous Congress had imposed. The bill is considered unlikely to reach the floor in the Senate, where it is opposed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Spearman is an educator and former Army lieutenant colonel. She founded Resurrection Faith Community Ministries in Nevada and serves as its pastor.

"Equality is not debatable,” Spearman, who is openly gay, said at a House subcommittee hearing on the ERA in April 2019. “We are born with it. The only thing we are asking of the ERA is to acknowledge the fact that women are born equal to men. And if you are born in privilege, you have no idea what I'm talking about.”