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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 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]

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