In 1923, three years after women secured the right to vote in the U.S., suffragists Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman submitted a proposal for another amendment to the Constitution, this one guaranteeing equal rights for women across the board. For nearly 50 years, lawmakers repeatedly introduced the proposal to Congress, where it fizzled every time.
In March 1972, spurred by a re-energized feminist movement, both chambers finally passed the amendment. Congress then sent it to the states for ratification by a three-fourths majority, along with a seven-year deadline to do so. The Twenty-Eighth Amendment, also known as the Equal Rights Amendment, guarantees that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Another 50 years passed, and the bill has not been ratified. Although Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the bill in early 2020, giving it the three-quarters vote it needed, the amendment has since gotten hung up in debate over the deadline.
The proposed Equal Rights Amendment has had a long and fascinating history. Here are nine facts you should know.
1. Supporters say the Equal Rights Amendment would firm up protections for women.
Advocates say the amendment could help women in the workplace with securing maternity leave, in averting pregnancy discrimination and in combating violence against women. They say the constitution needs an explicit prohibition against sex discrimination for gender equality to truly exist. Without a constitutional amendment, rights would be left to the whims of the party and people in power and could fluctuate.
ERA supporters point out that even though the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, many conservatives argue that sex is not included. Ditto for Title IX and the Civil Rights Act, which are pieces of legislation that can be changed.
2. Five states tried to rescind their vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Idaho all voted to ratify the ERA and then voted to rescind their ratifications—all before the 1982 deadline. It’s unlikely that states can rescind ratification, yet no less than late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned it. Ginsburg, a supporter of the ideals of the ERA, said that if states were allowed to ratify the ERA after the deadline, then "how can you disregard states that say, 'We've changed our minds’?'"
3. The original Equal Rights Amendment proposal was called the “Lucretia Mott Amendment.”
Alice Paul, of the National Women’s Party, and pacifist lawyer Crystal Eastman drafted the wording of the original proposed amendment, naming it after the 19th-century women’s rights activist. The original amendment stated that “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”
4. Eleanor Roosevelt initially opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.
Because of her close ties with the labor movement, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt did not endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. Roosevelt felt, as did many opponents, that the amendment would negate protective legislation for women in the workplace.
As labor unions and collective bargaining agreements gained ground, Roosevelt’s opinion of the ERA began to change. In 1946, she publicly withdrew her opposition to it.
In addition to labor opponents like Roosevelt, the ERA also faced criticism from Black Americans, who urged white feminists to focus on securing the voting rights of Black women and people of color. Alice Paul and others refused to do so, creating a fissure in the suffrage movement.
5. Most of the Southern states have opposed the Equal Rights Amendment all along.
Three-fourths of state legislatures must ratify an amendment for it to be added to the constitution, and the ERA gained most of those within the first year. It was three votes shy of ratification by the original deadline and again by the extended deadline.
Illinois, Nevada, and Virginia all signed on in the past five years. Another 12 states are holdouts: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arizona.
6. Phyllis Schlafly’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment launched the modern conservative movement.
The ERA failed to be ratified by the original deadline owes largely due to conservative activist and attorney Phyllis Schlafly, whose arguments against it ultimately laid the groundwork for many of today’s conservative talking points.
Schlafly argued that the amendment would strip women of their real power and force upon them—and society—a host of moral ills. Chief among those: women in the draft, “abortion on demand,” same-sex marriage, and genderless bathrooms.
Schlafly organized grassroots movements to pressure state legislatures to reject ratification of the amendment and formed Stop ERA, for “Stop Taking Our Power,” in 1972. That group morphed into the religious right organization Eagle Forum, which is still active. Ironically, Schlafly argued adamantly for women to remain at home as dutiful wives and mothers while she worked as an attorney and traveled the country promoting her views.
7. The last constitutional amendment took 203 years to ratify.
The Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which prohibits Congress from changing its salary before an election, was ratified in May 1992—203 years after it was introduced. The amendment was the second of 12 amendments proposed by the first Congress in 1789, 10 of which were ratified and became the Bill of Rights.
The Twenty-Seventh Amendment didn’t include a deadline for ratification, and interest in it waxed and waned. After a resurgence of interest in the 1980s, the ratification effort picked up again and the remaining number of states necessary signed on. The archivist of the United States certified the amendment on May 18, 1992.
8. More than 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution formed the Bill of Rights and were ratified in 1791. Since then, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed, with just 27 making it through the entire process.
Congress has sent a total of 33 constitutional amendments to the states for ratification, meaning six are left outstanding. Three were introduced in the 20th century: the ERA, the Child Labor Amendment (rendered moot by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938), and an amendment giving D.C. full voting rights. The others are relics, dealing with titles of nobility, representation in Congress, and slavery.
9. The Equal Rights Amendment’s deadline is still being debated.
Congress imposed a deadline of 1979 for ratification by three-quarters of the states, then extended that to 1982. Because the deadline came and went, some believe the amendment is dead. Others argue that because the deadline was in the preamble and not the actual text of the amendment, it can still be adopted.
The archivist of the United States is tasked with certifying newly ratified amendments to the Constitution. But when the current archivist asked the Trump administration’s Department of Justice for an opinion on the ERA’s validity, it issued a 38-page document saying the amendment is invalid because ratification came after Congress's deadline. Thus, the National Archives has not published and certified the amendment.
Democrats have introduced legislation to remove the deadline or affirm that the amendment has met the necessary requirements. The final three states to ratify the amendment—Illinois, Nevada, and Virginia—sued to force the National Archives to formally certify it. In February 2022, Virginia’s newly elected Republican Attorney General withdrew from the lawsuit. Its future is still up in the air.