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The Center on Colfax

The Equal Rights Amendment


"Laws Protecting Women" Comic in the Straight Creek Journal (Denver, CO), 12 October, 1972.

In 1923, what would become known as the Equal Rights Amendment was written by members of the National Women’s Party (NWP). The origins of the NWP can be traced back to 1912, when Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had been appointed to the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) Congressional Committee. When tensions grew between NAWSA and Paul and Burns over tactics and goals in April 1913, Paul and Burns founded a separate organization known as the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU). According to the Library of Congress, the NWP was formed by the CU in June 1916. The CU worked in states where women did not have the right to vote, while the NWP functioned in states, mainly in the west, where women’s suffrage had been passed. The two groups became one, just known as the National Women’s Party, in January 1917. After first being submitted to congress in 1923, the ERA was finally passed by Congress in 1972, with the stipulation that it needed to be ratified by 38 states by March of 1979 in order to become federal law.

The National Organization for Women

Several feminist organizations became involved in the push for the ratification of the ERA. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 by feminist leaders including Betty Friedan, Pauli Murry, Mary Eastwood, and Aileen Hernandez. It was founded after the 1966 National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington D.C., “failed to pass a resolution that called on the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)] to take a more active stance in preventing sex discrimination in the workforce.” The founders of NOW “believed the EEOC would look at sex discrimination more critically if women had an outside civil rights organization to lobby as strongly for women as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored (NAACP) did for Black Americans.” In less than five years, NOW had thousands of members and chapters all over the country. Due to this, lesbians became a more visible presence in the organization, which in 1969 prompted Betty Friedan, who had become the president of the organization, to refer to them as a lavender menace.

Specifically, that they posed a threat to the “political efficacy of the organization and of feminism.” As a result, lesbian members of the New York branch of NOW and their supporters stormed the stage of the “1970 meeting of the congress to unite,” wearing purple shirts with the words “lavender menace,” arguing that lesbian rights are women’s rights. Many members agreed, and did not agree with the fears that lesbians would diminish their political message. In 1977, when the country was three states shy of making the ERA a federal law, NOW called for a boycott of states that had not ratified the ERA such as Arizona,
Georgia, Nevada, and Mississippi. They garnered the support of 75 organizations that committed to not hold conventions in those states. The financial losses added up quickly, such as in Chicago, which saw $15 million in lost convention revenue.


“Year of the Woman” with Flo Kennedy and An Unidentified Woman. 1974. Photo by Bettye Lane

The ERA in Colorado

Colorado was one of the states that had ratified the ERA in 1972, but its status in state law was not stable. In 1976, a ballot issue was put on the 1976 Colorado ballots to ask the voters to repeal the ERA from state law. Those in support of repealing the amendment feared that it would lead to unisex “public restrooms, dormitories, and prison facilities, and an ultimate deterioration [of] the family unit.” There were housewife groups that believed the ERA would mean women would no longer be able to be stay at home mothers, that they would need to financially support their husbands, that alimony would become a thing of the past, and that women could be prosecuted for statutory rape. Others argued it would cause women to be drafted, and that churches would lose tax exempt status if they had no female ministers.

Arguments against the equal rights came early on in Colorado. Matthew Woll, the V.P. of the American Foundation of Labor wrote an article in The Moffat County Bell, which was published on April 28, 1922. In it, Woll argued that women might not wish to take their husband’s name, which could cause confusion over which name the children would be given; that if given full equality with men, a woman could be “sued for failure to support the family.”

He concluded that he was opposed to “the ‘equal rights’ amendment because of a fear that many of the rights now enjoyed by women in industry would be imperiled by
legal interpretations that may be placed upon the law.” The League of Housewives had similar fears in 1975, calling the ERA a “loss of rights amendment.” They believed that it would force women to go out and get jobs, no longer able to be housewives. That same year an organization called Wake-Up Colorado, chaired by Mrs. Marian Reardon, had submitted 117,520 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State to have the Colorado ERA put on
the ballot so that the voters could repeal it. Reardon feared the ERA would “undermine child-support laws, favor minorities and women over nonminority men who are heads of households finding jobs and prohibit portrayal of boys as boys and girls as girls in school textbooks.” This petition, after being discussed in committee, resulted in the aforementioned ballot issue 6. When the election came, the people of Colorado rejected the idea of repealing the ERA. In late 1976, the ratification of the ERA was given a 39-month extension to June 30, 1982, but the final state, Virginia, did not ratify the ERA until 2019, decades after the deadline passed.

The Equal Rights Amendment