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Equal Rights Amendment

Last Updated: 2006

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee women’s rights and equality under the law. The amendment passed Congress in 1972, but was declared dead in 1982, 3 states short of the required 38 states (three-fourths of the states) needed for adoption of a constitutional amendment. The ERA read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on the basis of sex.” The ERA was first introduced in Congress in December 1923 by Daniel Anthony, a Republican from Kansas who was the nephew of Susan B. Anthony. The original amendment read, “Men and Women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The amendment was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until it was passed by Congress in 1972.

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.

Women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) were active in lobbying Congress to pass the ERA, as they believed the amendment was necessary to ensure equal treatment under the law due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prior to 1971. The Court had failed to hold that the clause protects women from some forms of discrimination by the states and the federal government. In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned a state law as unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause due to sex discrimination for the first time in Reed v. Reed. Further protection against sex discrimination was achieved in Craig v. Boren (1976), a case in which the Supreme Court overturned an Oklahoma law requiring males to be older than females to purchase beer as a violation of equal protection. In the Reed case the Court used the same standard it uses in scrutinizing laws that do not classify based on sex or race. In the Craig case it used a higher standard known as “intermediate scrutiny” for the first time. The standard makes it more difficult for a law making a gender distinction to be upheld than other laws. The Court, however, did not apply the “strict scrutiny” that it uses in race cases as NOW and other women’s groups had hoped. Some women argued that the ERA was no longer necessary due to these changes in constitutional law, while others still felt the ERA was necessary for symbolic purposes or to actually ensure gender equality.

Modern opposition to the ERA was led by Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois, who founded the conservative group Eagle Forum, which originally focused on opposition to ERA. Schlafly’s movement, known as “Stop ERA,” was a grassroots effort that mobilized ordinary women across the United States against the ERA. The major arguments made by the opposition were that protections and privileges granted to women would be lost, such as the exemption from the military draft and the right to financial support from their husbands. To emphasize what the movement saw as a major threat to women and families, activists in the movement dressed their daughters in dresses and pinned signs on them that read, “Don’t Draft Me.” In Illinois and elsewhere, the military service argument was a major reason why the ERA was not ratified. Also, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) guaranteed the right to abortion, ERA opponents argued that it would guarantee publicly funded abortions on demand. The ERA needed 3 more states for ratification in 1982 when the new limit for ratification set by Congress had expired.

While some argue that the ERA is no longer necessary in light of current laws and court rulings, it has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since 1982. In the 108th (2003–4) Congress, New York Representative Carolyn Maloney sponsored a new ERA in the House of Representatives. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts sponsored the new ERA in the Senate. If a new ERA passes Congress, it will start the ratification process over again. Many women’s organizations support the passage of a new ERA, including NOW, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the League of Women Voters (LWV), and other groups in the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

Also, the Alice Paul Institute has focused on a “three-state strategy” in Illinois, Missouri, and Florida, arguing that Congress can still extend the time limit for ratification on the 1972 ERA given that a different session of Congress extended the deadline once already. Also, they point out that the Twenty-seventh Amendment banning members of Congress from voting themselves a pay raise, which takes effect prior to the next election cycle, was ratified by the required number of states over 200 years after it passed Congress.

SEE ALSO: Amendment ProcessGender and Federalism


Janet K. Boles, The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment: Conflict and the Decision Process (New York: Longman, 1991); and Jane Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).