Are we there yet? The long road to equality for women…..

by on September 29, 2010 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Education, Election, Health, Labor, Women's Rights

ERA old photo 1920

Celebrating the passage of women's right to vote, August 1920.

Editor: This is Part Two of the series “Is there a feminist in the house?” See here for Part One.

“Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature.” … “What I am defending is the real rights of women. A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.” Phyllis Schlafly

“Schlafly’s discussion reveals a paradox. She was able to have it all: family and career. And she did it by fighting those who said they were trying to get it all for her.…” Pia de Solenni

ERA Phyllis Schlafy 1977

Phyllis Schlafy opposing the ERA in 1977.

ERA t-shirtWhen I walked into the unisex bathroom at the Livingroom coffeehouse, I deftly threw a kung fu kick, successfully lowering the toilet seat from its upright position with a soul satisfying BANG! accompanied by my hissed words “Here’s to you Phyllis Schlafly!”

Schlafly spear headed the anti-Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement in 1974, maintaining that the ERA’s passage would lead to compulsory military service for women, same sex marriage and (drum roll please…) public unisex bathrooms!

Here’s the complete text of the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms the equal application of the U.S. Constitution to both females and males. And yes, it is the COMPLETE text.

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

ERA constitutionSchlafly either ignored or was completely out of touch with the larger societal dynamics that would lead to the end of the Draft, the broad support of gay rights, or the inclusive role of women in the military. And she didn’t have a clue about the changes that would be made to public bathrooms. She was utterly wrong in thinking that she could stop these changes and a myriad of others by simply trying to tie them all to the ERA and killing them forever when that legislation failed to pass.

While Schlafly successfully threw a monkey wrench into the ERA ratification process, she could not stop history- although she is still trying. And of course the terrible irony is that she has gained a place in history, or at least in kids’ history books, by virtue of the reactionary victories in the Texas textbook wars.

Schlafly ginned up fear about the unspeakable horrors ahead if the ERA passed, and she ginned up an equal amount of fear by prophesying an end to the “special protections” afforded to women in the past. For those of you who didn’t grow up before the mid 1970’s here are just a few of those “special protections:”

ERA button

  • Sex discrimination in schools and athletics was not banned until 1972. Prior to that time, girls and women were “protected” from having their athletic interests and abilities supported. No swim teams, basketball, volleyball or tennis teams for girls, and hence no athletic scholarships to go to college, but hey- we got to learn square dancing and nine of us every year made the cut to be a cheerleader!
  • University housing policies “protected” women by requiring them to live in campus housing and to observe a midnight curfew. Men could live in off campus housing and come and go as they pleased. Doesn’t this sound positively quaint?

ERA marchers fists

  • Women were “protected” from becoming human beings who could eat or drink in some of the most popular established after hour venues that served alcohol. After 7:00 pm a male escort was required. Women out there- can you imagine going to Portugalia some evening and being turned away from the door because you don’t have a male escort?
  • Women were “protected” from financial decision making and power over those decisions. Many of us lived in states where we could not get a credit card in our own name. Hubby had to sign off for us. No hubby- no credit- unless Daddy stepped in, of course.
  • Depending on which state they were married in, women often did not have the legal option of keeping their own name. They would have to pay to go through a legal process to change their name back.
ERA rally whitehouse

Rally at the White House in support of the ERA.

  • Women were protected from “potty parity” by being required to pay to use the few public restrooms for women, in airports, for example. While guys peed for free, women could be seen pushing their toddlers under a public restroom door because they didn’t have a quarter, anxiously directing “Jimmy honey” to “open the door for Mommy. Come on Jimmy…. No sweetie, don’t unroll all the toilet paper…Open the door for Mommy…”

The list above does not even begin to address the grim inequality of pay, nor the lack of access to better paying jobs that were historically filled by men. But I believe that the majority of men and women today would look at this list and say- “That’s nuts. Absolutely nuts.” And of course it’s nuts, and thankfully it is not the world in which most of you grew up- except for the equality of pay thing, which is still a significant problem. This is however, the “pro-family,” protected woman’s world upon which the first mama grizzly- Phyllis Schlafly- developed half of her “the world will end” strategy if the ERA were to pass.

ERA RIP cartoonIn the early 70’s I was involved with a small group of women who started the first National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in Key West, Florida. One of our first acts was to donate a subscription of MS to the Key West library. We also drove to Orlando to participate in a national strategy to pass the ERA. What I remember most about that conference was the remarks of one of the speakers.

That speaker maintained that women cannot claim the victory of women’s equality simply because a few women are able to break through the glass ceilings in their respective fields. Rather, equality would be achieved only when an utterly mediocre, dull woman could achieve the same pay and stature as her mediocre and dull male colleague. That remark has stuck with me over the past 40 years.

ERA gloria

Feminist Gloria Stenim.

In the intervening years I have seen the reversal and elimination of laws and social mores that I listed in the “protections” above. I have seen a woman- Hillary Clinton- get “this close” to becoming the president of the United States. And I have also seen women on the right proudly wrap themselves in the flag of feminism. We live in strange times. The reality is that Sarah Palin is much smarter than say, Louie Gohmert, who is not exactly the brightest bulb in Congress.

Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and Phyllis Schlafly are far from stupid women, and feminists and everyone else should be very, very careful about appending that judgment to these women. While each of these women can be rather dull, incurious about the world around them and out of touch with the prevailing concerns in this country- they are no worse than many men running for or holding political office. But the sticking point for me is that they are no better. I repeat- the sticking point is that they are no better and I am not going to vote on the basis of sex chromosomes.

My question remains- Is there a feminist in the house? Stay tuned for Part Three in this series- Unfinished business

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Old Hermit Dave September 29, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Sorry Girls but the founding FATHERS put it in writing. “All rich white MALE land owners were created equal”. No mention of the gender that talked poor old Adam into eating that apple. Face it its a GUY THING.


avatar annagrace September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

Thanks OHD for reminding me of this! I guess I don’t have to worry my pretty little head any more…. But seriously, Justice Scalia recently said that the constitution does not prevent gender discrimination


avatar Sunshine October 1, 2010 at 11:24 am

anna, having lived through these changes in ‘societal roles’ for women myself over the past 50 years, rest assured, i still believe human rights prevail over any male-dominated rules and regulations designed to protect me from my “genders inadequacies.”

the very idea that he is entitled to more than i is ludicrous at best.

“well behaved women rarely make history”


avatar annagrace October 1, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Hey Sunshine- because you and I lived through those times, we are thrilled that young men and women have no idea what we are talking about from those days. But because of those experiences we ended up being politicized and we can still smell the stink of lingering inequality. We also relied on communal support of each other to address the wrongs. At this point I don’t believe young women have a highly developed stink detector for any number of reasons. Furthermore, we live in a world now which promotes personal exceptionalism at the expense of communal identification and action.


avatar Diane5150 October 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm

“mediocre, dull woman could achieve the same pay and stature as her mediocre and dull male colleague.”
I love this quote. I am from that in between generation, I was a U.S. soldier right when the Woman’s Army Corp was abolished in 1977 and the sexes had Basic training together.

The so called protections were gone and male soldiers were hot to trot. It was a sexually charged and hostile environment for a female soldier.


avatar Anna Daniels October 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Diane- an interesting observation from the in-between generation. The fallout of women’s equal rights victories often was a hostile environment that presented a whole new kind of challenge and need for completely different coping mechanisms. I’d love to hear more about your experience….


avatar Diane5150 October 3, 2010 at 9:15 am

Briefly, myself and at least ten other women endured repeated sexual assault for six months at the hands of the Company 1st Sergeant. His behavior was ignored by the Captain and fellow NCO’s.We filed complaints with JAG which led to an Article 32 hearing and his court-martial on one charge of attempted rape. He was demoted to staff sergeant. We were left twisting in the wind.


avatar Anna Daniels October 3, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Do you think women in the military today are much less likely to encounter this same kind of situation?


avatar Diane5150 October 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Good question? In 1977 women were expected to suck it up and pretend that rape didn’t bother them.

Oh wait, it’s 2010 and woman are still responsible for rape, according to the Conservative Christian Right and the Taliban.

So in answer to the question, No.


avatar Old Hermit Dave October 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I put my new version of the Declaration of Independence in Delphi.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL RICH WHITE MALE LAND OWNERS are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A poster argued with me saying there was no woman’s suffrage anywhere at the time. My argument is that our guys could have been first. Surely they knew women were alive at the time.


avatar Ernie McCray October 4, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I can’t help but think about how my mother, one of the brightest human beings I’ve ever known, a graduate of Howard University, had to hustle like crazy to keep us alive and well for years before she finally landed a job that fit her abilities.
She had the double whammy of being black and a female. And even during the worst of times she managed to scrape a few pennies together so we could get out of Tucson for a couple of weeks every summer and see the country. By the time I was 15 she had taken me to every state except Florida and Georgia and Hawaii and Alaska which weren’t yet states.
She didn’t let her lack of status in society prevent her from opening my eyes to travel and the arts and a range of intellectual pursuits. She had to endure indignities in a “man’s world” but she prevailed at a time when only men (white men at that), societally speaking, were thought to have fortitude. She converted me to feminism before I had any notion of what such was.


avatar annagrace October 5, 2010 at 8:20 am

Ernie- you are quite right to point out that civil rights issues are inextricable from women’s issues. It is impossible to have one without the other. I wish I had known your mother- that talented strong and beautiful woman who raised such an amazing son.


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