The Equal Rights Amendment and the History of Women’s Rights

November 27, 2019

Update: On January 15, 2020, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a ratification resolution for the ERA in a 59–41 vote in the House of Delegates and 28–12 vote in the Senate. However, experts and advocates have acknowledged legal uncertainty about the consequences of Virginia’s ratification, due to the expired deadlines and the five states’ revocations.

In just a month, the decade will officially end, and a new one will begin. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed white women the right to vote. However, did you know that outside of the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave women of color the right to exercise their right to vote, women in the U.S. have no constitutionally guaranteed rights? 

Today, we look at the history of women’s rights, the fight for equality, and the importance of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

1848: The Seneca Falls Convention

The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York is the first significant gathering for women’s rights, and was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (among other abolitionists and suffragists). At the convention, 100 men and women signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that was structured similarly to the Declaration of Independence but included women in its guarantees to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Suffrage in North Carolina

When it came to winning the vote, Western North Carolina was something of a trailblazer. In 1894, the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association began in Asheville, and Yancey County Senator J.L. Hyatt introduced a bill to enact women’s suffrage in North Carolina in 1897.

Lilan Exum Clement, an Asheville woman, also notably pushed for a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. 

1920: The Right to Vote… for some 

Wyoming was the first state to pass a women’s suffrage law in 1869. The rest of the country would wait to follow suit until 1920. The 19th Amendment was passed on August 18, 1920 and technically granted women the right to vote. However, the 19th Amendment did not extend to all women.  Despite their ongoing support for gender equality, women of color were largely excluded from this victory because of continued racism and sexism. 

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which brought an end to voter discrimination and intimidation; finally, all women were guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of race. 

1972 onward: The Equal Rights Amendment

As of today, the Equal Rights Amendment is still a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Yep, you read that right…it’s just proposed. The amendment was written in 1923 by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman with to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex and end legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and more. 

The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 (just 7 years after the Voting Rights Act), then sent to the states for ratification. According to our legislative process, a majority of states (38) are needed to ratify an amendment. 

In 2017, Nevada ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. In 2018, Illinois followed.

Today, there is still work to be done

Women still make only 80 cents for every dollar men get for the same jobs, and our country is still one state away from finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification would officially add it to our Constitution. 

During WomanUp 2019, Asheville Chamber president Kit Cramer commented, “It seems fitting that ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment be completed during the 100th anniversary year of the passage of women’s right to vote.Without that guarantee of equality, laws can be overturned by a simple majority vote in state legislatures or in Congress. 

Here’s what the Equal Rights Amendment says: 

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.

Take action to support North Carolina’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment today. 

The Asheville Chamber is thankful for all the women who have fought for Equal Rights, as well as all the women of color who joined the fight across decades of history while still waiting for their equality. We are also thankful to the League of Women Voters, particularly the Asheville chapter (shoutout to  Lynne Joshi, Juanita Carrier, Carol Covington, Suzanne Fisher, Roberta Madden, and Jimmie Cochran Pratt!).