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1 The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II
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The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II

World War II put women into work they had never done before. Highly skilled and highly paid, women workers producing war materiel demonstrated that they could do virtually any job. The information proved unsettling. American tradition dictated that women, especially married women, keep house and raise children, not put rivets into airplane fuselages. The nation was at once grateful to its women for their help and unnerved at how well they performed.[1] Women activists with political agendas of long standing sought to capitalize on the feelings of gratitude, proposing federal measures to protect women from discrimination. But they faced a resistance strengthened by the anxieties of wartime dislocation.

Postwar Backlash

The federal government had enticed women into the labor force for war work. Federal funds helped communities take care of the children, and the National War Labor Board promised equal pay with men, declaring wage differentials based on sex impermissible (partly to lure women to work and partly to keep wage rates up in preparation for the GIs' return).[2] A massive public relations campaign sang the praises of "Rosie the Riveter." Magazine story writers began to portray married women workers favorably, able to handle their jobs competently while meeting their family responsibilities. Work and love went together—but only for the duration. Advertisers who included working moms in their ads made it clear that Mom was


serving because it was her duty but that she would be home again full-time as soon as she could. Now, she had to take care of her kids not directly but by doing war work. As Maureen Honey describes it, "The role allocated to women in wartime propaganda, then, was a complicated mixture of strength and dependence, competence and vulnerability, egalitarianism and conservatism."[3]

In response to patriotism and new opportunities, the female labor force swelled from thirteen million in 1940 to nineteen million and more in 1944. By March of that year, almost one-third of all women over the age of fourteen were in the labor force, and the numbers of women in industry had increased almost 500 percent, to one woman worker in three. The opportunities created by the war allowed women to leave domestic service jobs: between 1940 and 1944 the percentage of working women who held domestic jobs dropped from 17.7 to only 9.5. Still, more than half of women who worked during the war held clerical, sales, service, or domestic jobs. These women did their duty, but they faced many burdens. The number of childcare facilities never approached the need, areas with military personnel lacked adequate schools, housing was scarce near military installations and defense plants, and few businesses adjusted hours to accommodate women workers.[4]

Even with all these difficulties, however, policy makers were concerned that women in nontraditional jobs would not willingly relinquish them at the end of the war. As a result, government propaganda, midwar, did an about-face. Because the original exhortations to women to do war work had never challenged the core of ideas about femininity, because no one had suggested that work was more than a sacrifice women had willingly made for the most motherly of reasons, the shift was an easy one. The message was clear: although women could do anything, authentic women would choose to be home with their families. Women's magazines fell in line with the government's efforts and spotlighted articles on the importance of mothers caring for their children.[5]

Public opinion polls, however, revealed that between 60 and 85 percent of women engaged in war work did not want to leave their nontraditional jobs at the end of the conflict.[6] Out of


anxiety that women workers might tenaciously hang on to their jobs, the federal government terminated daycare funding and gave veterans the right to displace wartime workers. The contraction of war materiel manufacturing alone displaced workers, male and female, without further ado. Within one month of V-J day, the government canceled $35 billion worth of defense contracts. Employers also began now to revise their judgment of their women workers: in the postwar version of the tale, they had not been very good after all, prone to high absenteeism and "bad attitudes." Women's organizations of all stripes worked against the notion that employers should force women out of jobs, but to little avail.[7]

Those women who had them lost their high-paying, high-skilled jobs, but the attempt to get women out of the workforce entirely did not succeed. The dismantling of war industries merely consigned these women once again to traditionally female occupations. Companies laid women off at a rate 75 percent greater than that for men, and the returning veterans reassumed the traditionally male jobs. The director of the Women's Bureau, Frieda Miller, suggested that women who had been laid off from the munitions industry look to the (lower-paying) service sector for employment[8] —which, given no other options, they did. Thus, although 3.25 million women either quit or were fired during the period from September 1945 to November 1946, nearly 2.75 million women assumed jobs, making the net decline only 600,000 women. But Rosie the Riveter had become a file clerk.[9]

Practical considerations had dictated the ejection of women from wartime employment: returning soldiers needed jobs. Americans worried about the return of the biting depression that had preceded the war. Then, jobs for "heads of households" had taken priority. Intense opposition to married women workers had resulted even in occasional legal bans against hiring them, and in some families in which the wife had been the sole wage earner husbands had suffered acute emotional distress.[10] No one wished to contemplate the recurrence of such a phenomenon. In the twelve months following June 1945, nine million military personnel were discharged, and policy makers now sought to ensure that the former GIs would not be displaced by


women from jobs they had a right to as "breadwinners." With the contraction of defense manufacturing, the economic dislocation of the postwar period added to the pervasive strain that had attended the war years.[11]

But a still more insidious backlash emerged following the war, separate from the economic considerations resolved in part by women's relinquishing their jobs. As the psychiatrist Edwin Krause and the novelist Pearl Buck had both warned, by making them the beneficiaries of the heroic male warriors, the war caused a major setback for women. Popular literature counseled women to forget their own needs in order to make their beaux more comfortable, and articles advised them to cultivate feminine characteristics, eschewing the independence, assertiveness, and competency they had acquired from their experiences on the home front.[12] Government planners had defined the major postwar domestic problem as the readjustment of sixteen million veterans, and they believed that readjustment would come sooner if the vets found their girls as they had left them, not as independent working women.

The anxiety of readjustment translated into a desire for the reinstitution of traditional family life supported by traditional sex roles. Everyone wanted to forget the trauma of the war, including the evidence that women could perform the work of men. A survey of women's roles as portrayed in magazine fiction in 1945 showed careers for women depicted more unsympathetically than since the turn of the century. Women themselves sought the peace and pleasures of marriage and motherhood. The marriage rate, which had averaged 121 per thousand during the war, peaked at 148 per thousand in 1946, and the median marriage age for women fell more than a year, from 21.5 to 20.3. More than ever before, women were trying for both work and love. Pushed out of high-paying "men's jobs," they acquiesced to doing women's work at home and in the office.[13]

Women Leaders and Women's Issues

One group of women—the small and elite cadre that composed the leadership of national women's organizations—recognized both the vulnerability that women workers labored under and


the possibility of doing something to ameliorate it. If World War II created a backlash that coerced women out of war jobs and into white-collar work, it also generated a feeling of gratitude toward these women for the contribution they had made to the war effort, one no less essential than the military commitment. In October 1945, President Harry Truman offered them some recognition:

Since the earliest days of settlement and the beginnings of this great Republic of ours, American women have built for themselves a proud record of achievement, of unselfish devotion to the public welfare, of courageous industry in advancing every good cause. And never have they done a more magnificent job than during the crisis of recent years, both as private citizens and responsible public officials. To the women of America, I say—your untiring efforts to speed the winning of the war, your tender care and skilled nursing of those struck down on the battlefield, your passionate belief in the possibility of a just and lasting peace, and your effective work in advancing that great cause, need no tribute from me to make them shine as one of the glorious pages in our history.[14]

Women leaders hoped to capitalize on such gratitude to win at least some protection for the worker once heralded as "the woman behind the man behind the gun."

But these activists disagreed about the best goal to pursue, a controversy already more than two decades old. The break among women's groups had taken place shortly after women, in 1920, won the right to vote. By 1945 the old suffrage coalition had split into three separate, though overlapping, interest groups, each with a different (but not necessarily incompatible) agenda determined by ideology and class identification: one group pursued legislation for working women, one sought an equal rights amendment to the Constitution and the third aimed at securing a more prominent place for women in political parties.

The first group had roots going back to the settlement movement of the 1890s and the Progressive-era push for protective labor legislation for women. Middle-class women concerned about the welfare of their underclass sisters working in factories had formed organizations to improve conditions for industrial


laborers, in some cases joining forces with the women they hoped to help. These organizations—especially the National Women's Trade Union League and the National Consumers League—persuaded the federal government to undertake a massive study of working conditions of women and children, which was published in 1910. They used the data collected to promote state laws applying to women establishing minimum wages, maximum hours, weight restrictions on lifting, and prohibitions against night work. This effort to prevent employers from mercilessly exploiting women workers succeeded to some degree in nearly every state. Sustained by a liberal ideology of participation in government, active public intervention to assist those in need, and a firm belief in the American institutions of enlightened and regulated free enterprise, these reformers fought for suffrage as a means by which women could protect themselves and their families. This same group also persuaded federal administrators to establish a "Women in Industry Service" during World War I to protect women who entered defense work, and in 1920 Congress responded to pressure to make the new agency permanent: it became the Women's Bureau, located within the Department of Labor. With all players believing that both government and private industry would respond to demonstrated needs of workers, the bureau's function was restricted to the collection of information about women workers.[15]

Yet the organizations that had been instrumental in creating the Women's Bureau looked to it to provide not only information but also leadership. In 1945 the "Women's Bureau coalition" (as it will be called in the following pages) included the following associations: the National Women's Trade Union League (which would disband in 1950), the National Consumers League, the Young Women's Christian Association, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Negro Women, the League of Women Voters (although the league became less interested in women's issues as the decade progressed), the American Association of University Women, and various women's affiliates of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Not every organization was involved in every issue, and other groups occasionally participated on specific mat-


ters, but in general it was these associations that the bureau staff most often consulted and that usually rallied to the Women's Bureau positions. The coalition lacked key groups, however, especially major labor organizations and political clubs. Isolated from power centers both inside the government and outside and handicapped by a politically maladroit director, Mary Anderson (who headed the bureau for almost twenty-five years), the bureau had difficulty swaying policy makers.[16]

During World War II, the Women's Bureau coalition had sought essentially to make sure that employers did not use the war emergency as a way of vitiating standards for women workers. At the end of the war, although they looked with some distress on the wholesale dispatch of the female labor force, these organizations agreed with the general goal that married women should be supported by their husbands, who would be earning decent salaries doing men's work. For the women who had to stay in the labor force, the coalition sought to maintain or expand laws regarding work hours and minimum wage protections.

The second group of women activists, smaller and more elite, grew out of the last stages of the suffrage fight in the 1910s, when it splintered from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the group leading the battle for the vote in the mainstream liberal political tradition. Headed by Alice Paul, a charismatic militant suffragist, the National Woman's party (NWP) used highly visible and inflammatory demonstrations to get suffrage on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. The more traditional-minded leadership of the NAWSA feared that such actions would hurt the cause by creating a backlash, but sheer rivalry also played a role in the antagonism between the two groups.

Friction appeared again early in the 1920s over Paul's decision to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee women complete legal equality with men. The Women's Bureau coalition objected that the amendment would decimate the protective labor laws they had worked so hard to obtain, thus leaving working women defenseless. The NWP was not unsympathetic; composed largely of women of wealth and unusual educational attainment and concerned chiefly about the right of women to work as professionals, it initially sought a compromise that would


have excluded labor laws from the purview of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) it proposed. But these attempts proved futile, and the NWP ultimately took the position that laws only for women did more harm than good. The party argued variously that all labor laws should apply to both sexes or that labor laws were flat-out undesirable, the latter view reflecting the conservative political philosophy of many NWP members who opposed government interference in private enterprise. In 1928 the party endorsed the Republican Hoover-Curtis presidential ticket, primarily because Charles Curtis had been a sponsor of the ERA but also because many NWP officers were Republicans. (Neither presidential candidate had announced in favor of the ERA, although the Democratic candidate, Al Smith, was certainly against it, being an ardent enthusiast of protective labor laws.)[17]

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the NWP persuaded several women's organizations to support the ERA and to separate themselves from the advocates of protective legislation. By the 1940s, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW), the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Association of Women Lawyers, the National Education Association, and various other smaller professional women's organizations had endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and agreed to work with the NWP in pursuit of that goal.

But the NWP insisted on retaining leadership in the battle. Paul was not interested in a mass-based group; rather, she sought to create a Washington-based "elite vanguard," single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of the ERA and willing to follow her directions. The membership of the NWP endorsed her design. Almost all had participated in the suffrage battle, and the group made little attempt to recruit new members. By 1945 party membership—which, it claimed, had numbered ten thousand in the 1920s—had fallen to four thousand, even by its own highly inflated figures; only some six hundred paid annual dues. The party's intense devotion to its single cause did indeed make it influential out of proportion to its numbers.[18]

Meanwhile, the NWP and the Women's Bureau coalition had become archenemies. The Women's Bureau coalition continued to cooperate, if uneasily, with other pro-ERA organiza-


tions, like the BPW and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, on specific projects such as equal pay legislation; but after World War II the fight for the ERA constituted almost the entire program of the National Woman's party, and its defeat the major consolidated effort of the Women's Bureau coalition.

A third group of political women held itself somewhat aloof from this battle, pursuing a different goal. This contingent had appeared after the achievement of suffrage in 1920—in fact, in response to it. These women had become active in the national political parties' governing bodies, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC), and they were committed to seeing that women quickly attained their share of power within these political structures. Moreover, they wanted women appointed to government positions because they believed both that women appointees would improve government and that appointments of women would potentially benefit all women. They were supported by women in state party organizations and by female journalists, who viewed the number of women political appointees as an index of an administration's interest in women's advancement. In the 1930s the political party women were indistinguishable from the Women's Bureau coalition, and both they and the ERA proponents opposed the discriminatory features of the National Recovery Administration codes and discrimination against women workers during the Great Depression.[19] By the 1940s, however, political party women had gone one of two routes: either they openly espoused the Equal Rights Amendment, reflecting their own constituency of middle-class professional women, or else they simply tried to minimize potential fallout from the conflict by giving their party enough female appointments to counteract accusations of indifference to women's issues.

If class made a difference in support for the ERA, race apparently did not. Black women's organizations split over the amendment along the same lines white women's associations did. The National Association of Colored Women, under the influence of Mary Church Terrell, a wealthy militant suffragist, endorsed the ERA, but the National Council of Negro Women, founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935, voiced concern for protective labor legislation and in 1944 went on record opposing the


amendment. One member warned against the council's being led astray by the promise of equal rights: "We are being rocked to sleep by a trick phrase—one dear to us as to other underprivileged groups, and therefore calculated to dull our ability for discriminating between what is good and what appears to be good."[20]

Representatives from black women's organizations often took part in meetings arranged by the Women's Bureau coalition and were more visible fighting the amendment than favoring it. Many factors were at work here. The Women's Bureau coalition was more hospitable to black women than was the National Woman's party, which purposively narrowed its membership and its goals. The Women's Bureau coalition identified black women, as it did working women, as a special group requiring its assistance in the fight for economic opportunities. On some occasions, the white, middle-class women's organizations making up the Women's Bureau coalition even undertook to combat racism as a separate endeavor. Thus, black women felt more empathy from these white women. The NWP, in contrast, had no interest in civil rights for blacks, except when it could insist that women be included, for the sake of equity, in governmental measures aimed at racial discrimination. Further, the NWP, which accepted ERA proponents of all persuasions, had a wide tolerance for racists, and Paul herself frequently expressed racist sentiments. When convenient, the NWP used racist arguments to persuade Southerners to favor the ERA—that white women should not be denied rights accorded to black men. Such a ploy would hardly make the organization appealing to black women.[21]

But these considerations had a secondary role in determining black women's response to this struggle. Their position was clear: equal rights for women was a secondary issue; every black women's group considered the fight against racism its primary battle, more so since World War II, which had offered unprecedented opportunities for black women and men, as for white women. Black women were able to give up domestic jobs for higher-paying factory positions, and the number of black workers in government service more than tripled. War jobs encouraged blacks to move from rural areas in the South to Northern cities, and although the new mix of population often elicited


antagonism, the economic benefits were significant. The clashes brought the endemic problem of racism once again to the foreground, however, as did the treatment of black men in the armed services. Blacks disproportionately joined the military, and discrimination there seemed scorchingly hypocritical in view of the fact that American troops were fighting German racial supremacists. In 1942, James Farmer founded the Congress for Racial Equality; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People increased its membership nine-fold during the war.[22]

The fight for civil rights for blacks and the struggle on behalf of women remained separate, however. Little overlap existed in the personnel engaged in these efforts, although both drew on the same liberal ideology. ERA supporters saw opportunities whenever the government appeared to move toward helping blacks, and both the Women's Bureau coalition and the National Woman's party found useful models for federal action in black activist strategies. But virtually everyone engaged in these efforts in the postwar period saw crucial distinctions between discrimination based on sex and that based on race.

All women activists shared the view that discrimination against women based on crude ideas of masculine superiority had to be eliminated, but the split between the ERA advocates and the Women's Bureau coalition itself reflected the general ambivalence toward women's roles. Both groups were trapped by the apparent verity that only women could care adequately for children. The Women's Bureau coalition tried to resolve the conflict between independence for women and motherhood; the NWP did not address it. The intensity of the disagreement between them came less from practical considerations than from the difference in the way each group handled this issue.

Although both sought to improve the way that women were treated in the public arena, the people associated with the Women's Bureau argued that women's special function in the world—to nurture families and society—ultimately took precedence over the need for individual opportunity. In their view, the American legal tradition rightly acknowledged the unique role of women by differentiation in the law. Ideally, this group believed, no married woman with small children would work.


Rose Schneiderman of the National Women's Trade Union League had remarked in 1908 that women who wanted to work under the same conditions as men "might be putting their own brothers or sweethearts, or husbands out of a job."[23] In establishing the Women's Bureau in 1920, Secretary of Labor William Wilson stated: "All will agree that women in industry would not exist in an ideal scheme."[24] Although necessity sometimes forced women into industrial occupations, the Women's Bureau coalition judged such work to be inappropriate for women, and the state within its rights to limit female activity in this kind of employment.

Inside these boundaries, however, the Women's Bureau coalition sought to expand opportunities for women and to eradicate many forms of outright economic and legal discrimination. They advocated entrance into the professions on an equal basis with men and asserted that the state had an obligation to guarantee the right of women to be rewarded according to their merits. (They did not, however, concern themselves with the problems of women professionals, whom they believed could fend for themselves.)

The National Woman's party, conversely, believed that every public activity befitting men was acceptable for women and that, indeed, it was desirable for all women to have careers. The party did not view woman as frail, in need of special protection, and largely passed over the fact the most women worked in low-paying jobs and had neither the resources nor the education to become professionals. Since many in the NWP's leadership were conservatives who opposed statutory interference in private enterprise, they further contended that the ERA rendered any additional legislation for women unnecessary. Like the Women's Bureau coalition, the NWP considered childrearing a woman's task, but it did not address the problem of how a woman could reconcile motherhood and professional responsibilities. Many party members had simply chosen not to marry; others ran households with the assistance of paid help.[25]

The internal contradictions within each group's philosophy, created by the intractable problem of childcare responsibility, undermined the possibility that either could succeed in gaining its objectives, even if the social setting were receptive,


which it was not. The Women's Bureau coalition sought equal wages for women workers and access to higher-paying jobs, but at the same time it claimed a need for special protection for those workers. Employers quickly agreed that women workers needed special consideration, but they used that rationale to discriminate against them in wages and responsibility. For its part, the NWP asserted without convincing evidence that the ERA would eliminate the need for further legislation to give women equality of pay and job opportunity. The NWP took no account of extralegal causes of discrimination. So long as social norms decreed that women held the chief responsibility for childrearing and homemaking—a point the NWP did not contest—employers could justify differential treatment on the basis that a woman's commitment to work was limited as a man's was not. Thus, each plan of action addressed only a portion rather than the whole of the complex problem of women's status.[26]

In the postwar period the argument over women's roles played itself out in Congress as well. The National Woman's party, advocating the Equal Rights Amendment, took the offensive, while the Women's Bureau coalition played defense.

The Equal Rights Amendment Ascendant, 1946

The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment dominated the politics of women's rights and opportunities in postwar Washington. Interested players either took sides in favor or against or else they ducked by supporting ostensibly neutral alternative measures that were in fact thinly disguised attempts to scuttle the amendment. But one way or the other, the ERA held center stage. For both adherents and opponents, a bold question awaited decision, especially in the aftermath of women's wartime contribution: were women now to be viewed as autonomous individuals, or did they remain tied in a special way to the family, essentially dependent on the protection of both husband and state?

Shortly before the war, the ERA had made some significant progress. In July 1937, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, a prestigious organization of politi-


cally active women numbering sixty-five thousand, established the ERA as a legislative priority. The following year, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported it, although without recommendation, to the floor of the Senate, the first time the amendment had reached the floor of either house since its introduction in 1923. It was quickly recommitted.[27]

In May 1942 the Senate Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of chairman James Hughes (D-Del.), voted nine to three to report the amendment favorably, and in 1943 the ERA was the first resolution introduced in the House, cosponsored by forty-two members. The Senate Judiciary Committee again approved it, twelve to four, in May 1943, with a request for early and favorable action. The original amendment considered in 1923 had read: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction"; in order to bring the language in line with the Nineteenth Amendment (granting women the right to suffrage), the Judiciary Committee adopted alternative wording provided by Alice Paul. The new proposed amendment ran: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of sex." The House Judiciary Committee, after heavy lobbying by Catholic organizations committed to women's traditional roles, voted fifteen to eleven against reporting the ERA to the House, but proponents of the measure were increasingly hopeful that it would carry on a wave of wartime enthusiasm.[28]

The amendment's advocates exploited the wartime esteem for the competent woman and stepped up their lobbying efforts. Alice Paul revamped the organization of the National Woman's party and enlisted such luminaries as Mary Woolley, former president of Mount Holyoke College, the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, and the birth control reformer Margaret Sanger to stand up for the ERA. Other notable women also responded to Paul's entreaties: Pearl Buck, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Judge Sarah Hughes, Margaret Mead, and Congress-women Margaret Chase Smith and Clare Boothe Luce.[29]

The NWP kept itself a small, elite vanguard, but to benefit from the power of numbers it created an umbrella organization, the Women's Joint Legislative Committee (WJLC). A coalition of


all the organizations that endorsed the ERA, the combined membership of the WJLC totaled between five and six million members, a formidable constituency. The NWP orchestrated an intense lobbying campaign in Congress and within the political parties, dominating the movement for the ERA—sometimes to the annoyance of the other organizations involved. But if the NWP insisted on the authority, it also shouldered most of the administrative and financial burden.

The Women's Bureau led the counterattack. The ERA angered bureau director Mary Anderson, who had headed the bureau since its founding. Anderson had begun her working life in 1889, at age sixteen, as a stitcher in a shoe factory. By 1900 she had been elected president of her local, and in 1911 she gave up her factory job to become a full-time organizer.[30] Devoted to laws protecting women workers, she viewed the ERA as an absurd theoretical pronouncement, unrelated to the realities of women's lives and natures. The bureau had been created to help women function as wives and mothers even if their economic circumstances drove them into the workforce; Anderson saw the defeat of the ERA as her first responsibility.

A legal treatise drawn up at her request by the solicitor of the Department of Labor, Douglas B. Maggs, became the department's fundamental position paper on the subject. It warned of injury to women as wives and mothers should the ERA be added to the Constitution. Ratification of the ERA, Maggs admonished, would unsettle the law for years. The extensive litigation would result, he was sure, in "highly undesirable" changes in the Social Security system; equal induction into the armed services; changes in workmen's compensation laws; upheaval in laws requiring husbands to support their families; and repeal of "reasonable protective legislation" with "consequent social loss." Moreover, Maggs argued, the attempt to extend such laws to men would render the statutes subject to constitutional attack. He concluded his paper by asserting that a constitutional amendment that would nullify statutory differences "having a reasonable and rational factual basis" would lead to "social and legal consequences which even the proponents of the proposal would deplore if they had the candor to recognize them." Maggs added in a footnote: "Fanatical adherence to a doctrinaire principle or


dogma such as the theoretical equality of rights of men and women is foreign to the spirit of Anglo-American legislation and jurisprudence. If the proposal is ratified it should be regarded as an unwholesome original development in the law."[31] His characterization of the amendment's advocates as "fanatical" indicated accurately that the bureau did not foresee the possibility of compromise. Indeed, the two visions were irreconcilable.

When Frieda Miller assumed leadership of the Women's Bureau after Anderson's retirement in 1944, she pledged to continue the fight "with all the resources" at her command.[32] Miller had begun her career in public service in 1929 under Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, as head of New York State's Women in Industry Service. Before joining the government, Miller had worked in organizations concerned with the protection of working women, particularly the Women's Trade Union League. Her antipathy to the Equal Rights Amendment was therefore of long standing. Out in front on the issue, she called the amendment "radical, dangerous and irresponsible," its potential effects "calamitous."[33]

Both she and other ERA opponents recognized, however, that they stood on vulnerable ground with only a negative campaign. Acknowledging that some laws did discriminate against women and that some labor statutes had outlived their utility, the bureau began to examine state codes. Its mission was to find laws that needed to be eliminated and to identify those that continued to protect women but that would be at risk under the ERA. The bureau uncovered several categories of laws it defined as harmful to women; many limited the right of married women to own and convey property, to make contracts, to establish domicile, to control bequests, and to exercise parental authority. The bureau recommended that state legislatures repeal these statutes.[34]

The National Women's party contended that elimination of laws one by one would take too long. It also attacked as a limitation on women's freedom such regulations as laws restricting work hours for women. Good labor laws should be extended to both sexes, the NWP insisted, bad ones simply expunged. In response to the bureau assertion that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited "unreasonable" laws, the NWP pointed out cor-


rectly that the Supreme Court had never interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit discrimination against women.[35]

The momentum seemed to be with the National Woman's party and its wealthy, influential, single-minded members. In 1944 the Republican National Convention included a plank supporting the ERA, as it had in 1940. Indeed, from its inception enthusiasm for the amendment had been stronger among Republicans, and the argument that protective labor legislation would be affected won less sympathy from probusiness Republicans than from liberal Democrats. In 1940 representatives of the League of Women Voters, who had lobbied against the proposal in the platform committee, had dubbed its inclusion "the shock of the century," and a reporter for the New York Times had called the argument "the most extensive and portentous feminine controversy in the history of the country."[36] Now in 1944, however, the fight over the Democratic platform resulted in victory for ERA advocates as well. The Democrats, too, saw women earning a place for themselves as independent individuals and needed to encourage that position—at least for the duration of the war. Eleanor Roosevelt failed to speak against the amendment as she had in 1940, citing the confusion of the war and the uncertainties of the peace. It was difficult to argue in favor of labor legislation to limit women's hours when men were dying on foreign battlefields. The Democrats also felt the pressure of the Republican pronouncement. Were Democrats less committed to equality for women? The general disorganization of the opposition allowed ERA supporters, among them Perle Mesta and Emma Guffey Miller, a Democratic committeewoman from Pennsylvania and the sister of Senator Joseph Guffey, successfully to capitalize on women's war efforts. The Democratic plank finally read: "We recommend to the Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment on equal rights for women."[37]

The National Committee to Defeat the Unequal Rights Amendment

Alarmed by the successes of ERA advocates, especially the platform victories, and fearing a Senate vote, the Women's Bureau


coalition called a meeting in September 1944 "to organize a National Directing Committee to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment." Twenty-seven groups decided to coalesce under the rubric of the "National Committee to Defeat the UnEqual Rights Amendment" (NCDURA). The membership consisted principally of labor organizations and the national women's organizations making up the Women's Bureau coalition. NCDURA decided that in addition to lobbying against the ERA, it would set up local branches in each state to combat the ERA directly and to undermine its support by eliminating discriminatory state laws. Because even members of this committee could not agree on which laws genuinely discriminated against women, that determination was left up to the state organizations.[38] By June 1945 fifteen state committees had been formed, and the group, which had initially planned to operate for only six months, decided to continue functioning "until the end of the emergency." NCDURA's roster was a veritable roll call of liberal organizations, now comprising forty-three national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.[39]

Although advocacy of individual rights had become identified, since the New Deal, with the liberal wing of the Democratic party, support for the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress came mostly from Republicans and conservative Democrats from the South and the Southwest. On its face, the ERA was appealing—after all, it mandated equal treatment under law for half the population. Opposition to it, rather than support of it, required explanation, especially now that both parties had endorsed it. In their own defense, opponents cited the threat to protective labor laws; but those legislators who were indifferent to the labor law question had little reason to contest their party's official position. So probusiness Republicans and antilabor Southern Democrats found themselves on the same side of the issue. Advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment served, too, as a defense against the accusation that the South opposed civil rights: some Southern legislators held that equality for white women ought to come before, or at the very least with, equality for black men and women.[40] Some liberals accepted the argument that women deserved constitutional equality and that government regulation of the workplace could extend to both men


and women workers. The array of arguments concerning the ERA resulted in peculiar alliances on the issue: both the vigorously liberal Claude Pepper, a Democratic senator from Florida, and the ultraconservative Howard W. Smith, a Democratic representative from Virginia, favored the amendment. But in general, conservatives, finding the arguments in favor of free enterprise and individual opportunity especially appealing, tended to favor the amendment, whereas liberals, who espoused the idea that government had a positive responsibility to protect women and the family through regulation, were more likely to oppose the ERA.

For the moment, ERA advocates continued to carry the day. Citing the party platform pledges, the House Judiciary Committee in July 1945 reported the amendment favorably (by a vote of fifteen to seven) for the first time since its introduction twenty-one years before.[41] The NWP's revelation of support from Cardinal Dennis Dougherty "caused a minor sensation" in the Senate subcommittee hearing, and, primed by vigilant lobbying on the part of NWP workers, it voted in favor of the ERA four to one.[42]

In an effort to quell the tide of support, Frances Perkins urged President Truman to meet with the opponents of the ERA; he agreed to see them in September. In 1944 then Senator Truman had written to Emma Guffey Miller: "I am in sympathy with [the] fight for the Equal Rights Amendment because I think it will improve the standard of living." Despite Miller's entreaties, however, Truman had not reiterated his favorable statement.[43] Now confronted with a contingent of well-known liberal women, Truman was hardly willing to disavow his support for protective labor legislation. Administration aides trying to craft a position for the president felt besieged. "This is a tough baby," presidential aide William Hassett observed to David Niles, an administrative assistant. Niles concurred: "This Equal Rights thing is dynamite which ever way you place it." Matthew Connelly, the president's secretary, finally signed the letter to NCDURA chair Dorothy McAllister. The president, he wrote, "plans to give some thought to the Equal Rights Amendment in the near future and is grateful for the careful analysis you have made of this problem." Aware that the issue was both


complex and charged, President Truman issued no further public statements for or against the Equal Rights Amendment.[44]

The Senate Judiciary Committee, voting eleven to four, reported the ERA favorably on January 21, 1946. The measure now stood ready for a vote in both houses of Congress. Supporters and opponents lobbied vigorously. Under the letterhead of the Industrial League for Equality (an NWP creation designed to suggest labor support for the amendment), Congress members received a copy of a 1913 editorial by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers asserting that the "industrial problems of women are not isolated, but inextricably associated with those of men." An excerpt from the Supreme Court's 1941 decision upholding the Fair Labor Standards Act noted that hours and wage laws could now safely be applied to both men and women.[45] The other side sent a letter opposing the amendment, signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Carrie Chapman Catt (the leader of the National American Women Suffrage Association when the suffrage amendment was ratified), and several other notable American women.[46]

When the roll was called in the Senate on July 19, 1946, the amendment won a majority—thirty-eight to thirty-five—but not the two-thirds majority needed for victory. With twenty-three of the favorable votes Republican, plus two absentee Republicans recorded in favor, the total was one shy of two-thirds of the thirty-nine Republican senators. Democrats made up fifteen of the pro votes, with two absent Democrats indicating their approval as well, accounting for less than a third of the fifty-six Senate Democrats. Only four of the assenting Democrats were from states outside the South or Southwest.[47]

Crushed by the loss, the NWP complained that the vote had come without advance notice, when several pro-ERA senators were away from Washington. But opponent Senator Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.) insisted that many ERA supporters had voted in favor only because they knew the measure would fail.[48] The conflict had taken a toll, as later events showed: it was long before support gained such strength again. Several senators had promised that they would not vote in favor of the amendment in the future, NCDURA informed its membership, now that they knew more about its implications.[49] The New York


Times expressed its pleasure in an editorial: "Motherhood cannot be amended, and we are glad the Senate didn't try."[50] The measure never came to a vote in the House.

The Times rightly marked motherhood as the central issue. The failure of the ERA hinged not on the chance absence of its supporters but on the unwillingness of the nation as a whole to affirm the independent equality of women at a moment when the restoration of "normal" family life constituted a preeminent objective. Still reeling from wartime and conversion upheaval, with industry unsettled by strikes and families fighting inflation, equal treatment for women in the public sphere seemed beside the point. Women were needed at home.

But the impulse that had led to the ERA vote could not be entirely submerged. Both equity and the place women had gained in the workforce supported the call for some response from the federal government. The battle over the ERA went on through the next decade, a metaphor for the largely unacknowledged struggle being waged as women attempted to reconcile their home and public lives. For activist women in Washington, the amendment continued to dominate the political scene, generating alternative legislative proposals, all of which suffered from the difficulty of coming to terms with the changing role of women.


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