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2 "Reasonable Distinctions": An Alternative to the ERA
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The "Status Bill"

Aware of the activity of the National Woman's party and anxious about the continuing strength of the constitutional amendment, ERA opponents in 1947 decided to follow Eleanor Roosevelt's advice to construct a positive alternative piece of legislation, one that would eliminate "unfair" discrimination in the law without


the supposedly deleterious effects of the ERA. The proposed joint resolution became known as the "Status Bill" or the Taft-Wadsworth bill (after its sponsors Senator Robert A. Taft [R-Ohio] and Representative James W. Wadsworth [R-N.Y.]).[9] Seeking a less negative image, the National Committee to Defeat the UnEqual Rights Amendment, which had drafted the bill, changed its name to the National Committee on the Status of Women (NCSW).[10]

The members of the NCSW chose to offer an alternative "joint resolution" rather than a constitutional amendment for several strategic reasons. First, they believed that because a resolution required only a simple majority in each house of Congress, it would be easier to obtain than a constitutional amendment, which required a two-thirds majority in Congress and then approval by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Second, they feared that any amendment they offered might itself be amended to resemble the ERA more closely than they would wish. Finally, they felt that any constitutional amendment concerning women would invite litigation, and the outcome of a court fight could jeopardize the legislation they wished to safeguard.[11]

The Status Bill had two main components. The first was an unusual statement of "policy" for the United States, one that sought to acknowledge the desire both to enhance women's autonomy and to reaffirm their connection to the family. Apparently presuming that the two aims were reconcilable, the Status Bill declared that "in law and its administration no distinctions on the basis of sex shall be made except such as are reasonably justified by differences in physical structure, biological, or social function." The proponents of this bill noted approvingly that, although such a section "prohibited" sex discrimination, it permitted differentiation on "reasonable" grounds, such as those underlying protective labor legislation only for women and military service only for men, "based on rational and commonly accepted assumptions and beliefs."[12]

The other key section seemed more unambiguously aimed at change. It created a Commission on the Legal Status of Women, composed of seven members appointed by the president, to "make a full and complete study . . . of the economic, civil, social and political status of women, and the nature and extent of dis-


criminations based on sex throughout the United States, its Territories, and Possessions." The bill also required federal agencies to comply with the policy statement and urged that states take similar actions.[13]

According to its drafters, the bill constituted a compromise with the ERA. They knew that the National Woman's party would not accept it: "Frankly [the bill] is not framed to win the support of individuals who would seem to be satisfied with nothing less than a declaration, in fundamental law, that women, however different from men in their physical structure, biological or social function, must be accorded, by governments, identical treatment with men." But they argued that "all who earnestly desire to remove outmoded sex discriminations in law can at long last unite" behind their "practicable working program," whether or not they supported the ERA.[14]

With its policy statement, however, the bill could not serve as a compromise. If the law could take note of social function as well as physical structure and biological characteristics, virtually any discrimination could be justified. Even committed members of the Women's Bureau coalition took exception. The executive secretary of the New York Women's Trade Union League wrote to its national office, which supported the bill: "Please tell me, what is a social function of women as distinguished from a social function of men? If you are implying that it is the social function of women to rear the children . . . , keep the home fires burning and to be supported by their husbands, then I say to you that you have opened wide and fastened back with iron bars the door to eliminating by law all married women from employment. . . . A continuation of this reasoning takes us into the question of equal pay."[15] Several members of the Labor Advisory Council of the Women's Bureau also felt uneasy about the phrasing. Esther Peterson of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Katherine Ellickson of the research department of the Congress of Industrial Organizations requested that a preliminary definition of "reasonable distinctions" be made to guide the presidential commission the bill proposed to establish.[16]

ERA proponents expressed markedly less enthusiasm. The General Federation of Women's Clubs asserted that enough data on women existed to make the commission superfluous,


and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs characterized the Status Bill as "sniping at the Equal Rights Amendment." The NWP issued a statement labeling the bill "unnecessary and unjustified," opening the "floodgates" to discrimination against women through the policy statement.[17]

Nevertheless, proponents of the Status Bill regarded it as a method "to break the deadlock over the so-called Equal Rights Amendment." Eager for some movement, Eleanor Roosevelt, all seven women members of Congress, the League of Women Voters, and former directors of the women's divisions of both party national committees endorsed it. So did some ERA supporters, such as the New York Herald Tribune, which argued that the commission would "inevitably" reach the conclusion that protective labor laws should be extended to men. The Women's Bureau lobbied actively for the bill, although the White House remained silent.[18]

The Status Bill failed as an effort of conciliation. Solidly identified with anti-ERA forces, the paradoxical policy statement engendered enough controversy that Congress could hardly enact it in the interest of accommodation. The ERA had been in both platforms, and both House and Senate judiciary committees were on record in favor of it. Thus, in the spring of 1948, both committees once again reported the amendment favorably and postponed consideration of the Taft-Wadsworth measure. Action to remove the ERA from the parties' platforms also proved unavailing, thanks to the efforts of prominent party women in support of the measure.[19]

The ERA was not an issue during the 1948 campaign. Beset within his party by objections to his civil rights measures and assaulted by Henry Wallace's new Progressive Party for his belligerent stance toward the Soviets, Harry Truman's defeat seemed assured. But much to everyone's surprise, Truman pulled the election out of the grasp of Republican Thomas E. Dewey, and the Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress (although by only twelve votes in the Senate). India Edwards, who, as head of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, had planned the program to get out the women's vote, emphasized inflation, not women's rights. Relatively few women held or ran for public office. In


1949, fewer than 3 percent of the nation's state legislators were women: only one woman sat in the Senate, and eight in the House of Representatives.[20]

The new count revealed, however, that the ERA stood a reasonably good chance of passage in the Senate. In view of the lack of enthusiasm for the Status Bill, ERA opponents looked around for another measure that would provide either a positive alternative, or at least a way to maintain the status quo with respect to protective labor laws. They devised such a safety catch in the Hayden amendment.[21]

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