Jill M. Weber

The Pennsylvania State University


Passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920 marked an important milestone in the pursuit of equal rights for women. The legislation, which women's rights activists had been pushing for more than seventy years, finally gave women the right to vote. Some women's rights advocates, however, almost immediately began to complain that the amendment did not go far enough in addressing sex-based discrimination, particularly in the workplace. Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, for example, insisted that the U.S. Constitution needed to be changed to guarantee women's full participation and equality in society. In 1923, Paul drafted the text for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a piece of legislation designed to protect men and women against sex-based discrimination. If passed, she and other ERA proponents argued, gender could no longer be a factor in determining the legal rights of either men or women.[1]

For more than forty-five years, ERA proponents called upon Congress to pass the ERA and ensure that men and women would have "equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."[2] Despite a number of set-backs, the ERA's future appeared bright when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the ERA in 1970.[3] From May 5-7, more than sixty witnesses testified before the committee and even more submitted written statements for the record. Both proponents and opponents of the ERA offered their views on whether the United States needed an amendment to combat sex-based discrimination and, if passed, how the amendment would affect American women. According to proponents of the amendment, the ERA would merely grant to women the full legal and political rights of citizenship guaranteed to every other citizen under the U.S. Constitution. According to its opponents, conversely, the amendment posed a serious threat to the traditional family and would eliminate beneficial gender distinctions in the law, education, and even the military.

Gloria Steinem, a well-known writer, critic, and feminist was among the most compelling advocates of the ERA to speak before Congress. Employing a series of arguments, analogies, and examples, Steinem refuted some of the sex-based myths that she and other ERA proponents argued inhibited women's full participation in society, and she called upon Congress to recognize women's oppression as an important political issue. At the same time, Steinem helped to generate public support for the ERA and the women's movement by situating the cause and its goals within the larger civil rights movement.[4] Emphasizing the movement's focus on equality and fairness, Steinem not only presented a mainstream feminist message that appealed to a broad national audience, but also helped ensure that women's rights would remain on the national political agenda.

Steinem and the other ERA proponents initially succeeded in transforming the ERA into a winning political cause with widespread public support. Jane J. Mansbridge reports that throughout the ERA's struggle, a "substantial majority" of Americans favored the ERA's principles of equality, including many with traditional views about women's roles.[5] Many of those same Americans ultimately refused, however, to support passage of the ERA itself. Mansbridge attributes this seeming contradiction to a tension between "support for the principle and opposition to the practice."[6] She found that, when polled, voters consistently approved of the ERA's language and its principle of equality, but rejected the ERA itself because they apparently believed the oppositions' arguments about its potential effects.

In the end, then, Steinem and the other ERA proponents failed to convince enough of the public that the ERA was really needed. Part of the explanation for this lies in their inability to respond to ERA opponents' characterization of the effects of the amendment on marriage, the family, and women in society. Not only did the ERA fail to win ratification, but the opposition led many Americans to believe that it posed a serious threat to American society. In exposing many of the long-standing tensions between feminist and antifeminist worldviews, the ERA debate provides an opportunity to explore an important chapter in the history of the U.S. women's movement and to reflect on the origins of continuing controversies over equal rights for women.


Steinem's Biography


Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, to Leo Steinem and Ruth Nuneviller Steinem. The granddaughter of a suffragist and the second daughter of a well-educated and once successful female journalist, Steinem certainly had a number of strong, independent women role models. Her own journey to the forefront of the women's liberation movement, however, was not easy. A child of a Jewish-Christian marriage, the daughter of a mentally unstable mother and a largely absent father, Steinem's early life was "one of edges."[7] For the first ten years of her life, Steinem, her sister Susanne, and her parents spent their summers running a tourist resort in Clark Lake, Michigan. During the winters, they traveled in a house trailer to California or Florida, buying and selling antiques to earn money.[8] The family's nomadic lifestyle prevented Steinem from attending school on a regular basis. Steinem explained: "I didn't go to school until I was 12 or so. My parents thought that traveling in a house trailer was as enlightening as sitting in a classroom."[9]

In 1944, Steinem's life changed when her parent's separated. Steinem and her mother moved to Toledo, Ohio, where the two lived in poverty and squalor.[10] Her mother's severe depression and her inability to work led Steinem, while still a child herself, to become her "her mother's mother."[11] For seven years, Steinem "kept herself and her divorced mother within the bounds of a reasonable life," tending to her mother's needs and bringing in extra money when possible.[12]

The years in Toledo, Steinem later recalled, were the key to who she was.[13] In particular, Steinem's "experience of poverty," Heilbrun asserts, "permanently shaped her outlook on life."[14] Heilbrun continues: "That her roots were middle-class is inarguable; but it was with working class that she spent her preadolescent and adolescent years. Her only aim, and the single unrealistic dream of all her neighborhood peers, was to escape from that working-class world."[15] In 1951, Steinem got her opportunity to escape when she moved to Washington, D.C. and finished high school. After graduation, Steinem followed in her sister's footsteps and enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts. Steinem's mother sold her house to help finance the tuition and Steinem received scholarships to help cover the additional expenses.[16] While at Smith, Steinem studied political science and developed an interest in writing.[17] She excelled in her studies and, in 1956, she graduated magna cum laude. The summer after her graduation, Steinem became pregnant. Not wanting to marry, let alone have a child, Steinem had an abortion. This experience, she later wrote, greatly affected her: "'My own [abortion] had taken place in a time of such isolation, illegality, and fear that afterward, I did my best to just forget.'"[18]

Steinem's "beginnings of re-birth"[19] and her interest in activism began while completing a two-year post-graduate fellowship in India during the mid-1950s.[20] Embraced by the Indian pacifist community, Steinem joined their anti-war efforts and spent much of her time with "Radical Humanists," who she identified as "gentle activists and intellectuals" and Gandhians.[21] Their philosophies about activism led Steinem to rethink her own understanding of radicalism and social change. In 1958, Steinem moved to New York City where, in addition to establishing herself as a freelance journalist, she dedicated much of her time to activism.[22] Throughout the 1960s, Steinem participated in the civil rights, anti-war, and farm worker's movements. She gained the most publicity, however, as the "most famous feminist in the country, if not the world."[23]

Steinem first became involved in the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s when she began attending feminist meeting groups and accepted writing assignments on women's issues.[24] It was on one such assignment for New York magazine, Heilbrun writes, that Steinem "underwent her conversion to feminism."[25] Steinem recalled: "When I covered as a reporter an early feminist hearing on abortion, I heard personal testimonies to the sufferings brought on by having to enter a criminal underworld."[26] She explained that she reflected on these testimonies and the turmoil she faced as a result of her own unwanted pregnancy and "began to wonder why [abortion] was illegal; why our reproductive lives were not under our own control; and why this fundamental issue hadn't been part of any other social justice movements. It was a time of epiphanies."[27] Steinem had finally found her calling. Heilbrun writes: "Like Paul after his vision on the road to Damascus, but like him in no other way, she decided to go forth and speak, to spread the message."[28]

Despite her paralyzing fear of public speaking, Steinem became a prominent voice in the women's liberation movement and a recognizable media personality. Patricia Bradley notes: "At the time of her feminist awakening Steinem was already a local celebrity, and, at first breath of her connection to what was now becoming a hot media issue, she was immediately transfigured into a timely celebrity."[29] The media cast her as the "instant spokesperson" for the women's liberation movement and quickly anointed Steinem as a "feminist leader."[30] She was featured on the cover of magazines, quoted in newspaper and magazine articles, and interviewed on news programs and television specials. Employing many of the strategies she used while working with the civil rights, anti-war, and farm worker's movements, Steinem tried to focus attention on women's concerns. As Bradley and many other scholars note, Steinem had great success.[31]

Steinem's uncanny ability to relate her feminist message to a broad audience contributed to her success. "As the nation's most famous, most influential, and subsequently most enduring feminist," Bradley asserts, "Steinem came to represent the only ground on which Americans were ready to consider feminism." It was the same ground, Bradley adds, "that fit with mass media standards."[32] Indeed, for many, Steinem's feminine, glamorous, and non-threatening appearance, combined with her emphasis on the "broad, uncomplicated ideas of universality," offered a new image of feminism that appealed to the media and many Americans.[33] Those same qualities, however, provoked resentment among some other leaders fighting for women's liberation.[34] "That she was also the one the media appointed," Heilbrun writes, "was to cause a good deal of ill feeling among feminists who had arrived earlier, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor when the movement was young."[35]

The disputes over Steinem and her role in the women's movement would continue for years as various groups and leaders struggled to advance women's rights. Through it all, however, Steinem proved time and again that her media appeal "went a long way toward keeping the feminist cause in the forefront of the national consciousness."[36] Her involvement in the pro-ERA campaign illustrates how Steinem helped to generate so much attention to women's concerns and to shape the future path of American feminism.


Women and the Equal Rights Amendment


The 1960s was a decade of intense political activism as minority groups fought to secure their constitutional rights.[37] Blacks, Latinos/Latinas, American Indians, gays, lesbians, and other groups argued that they suffered from social, political, economic, and educational inequalities, and they demanded that the government help alleviate these disparities. Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to eliminate some forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which promised to ensure legal voting rights for all citizens.[38] Although these statues promoted more equitable standards for society, minority groups recognized that their quest for civil rights was hardly over.

Members of the growing women's rights movement, for example, pointed out the limitations of the existing civil rights legislation. Betty Friedan, author of the Feminine Mystique, celebrated the Civil Rights Act's ban on sex-discrimination in the workplace and described it as a great "boon" to working women.[39] Still, she argued, Congress needed to do more to more to guarantee women the same "protection of absolutely assured equal opportunity" that it granted other minority groups.[40] When Congress failed to acknowledge women's oppression as a legitimate civil rights issue, Friedan and other women's rights activists formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) to "take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men."[41] In the late 1960s, NOW placed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) at the top of its legislative agenda and enlisted the help of women's rights advocates and feminist organizations to secure the passage of this legislation designed to promote women's full participation in society.[42]

The ERA's roots date back to the 1920s when the U.S. government passed the nineteenth amendment. The legislation, which assured that "the right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," marked the culmination of more than seventy years of petitions, marches, and protests in support of women's suffrage.[43] A major legal victory for American women, the nineteenth amendment offered them opportunities to participate more fully in the civic life of their communities and nation.

Some women's rights advocates, however, viewed the success as only the first step in securing women's full participation in society. Alice Paul, for example, complained that women's suffrage did not address sex discrimination and called for additional legislation that would prevent gender from being a factor in determining the legal rights of either men or women.[44] Paul explicitly identified protective legislation--laws specifically designed to protect women by limiting their legal rights and workplace roles--as one of the main obstacles to women's full equality.

Unlike some social reformers who claimed that the government should limit women's work hours and the type of jobs they could safely perform, Paul argued that any limits on women's responsibilities or opportunities threatened their prospects for advancement. For example, Paul complained that laws limiting the number of hours that women could work or setting a minimum wage was "bound to hurt women more than it could possibly help them."[45] These "special privileges," she argued, prevented women from obtaining certain managerial and high ranking positions because they were legally prohibited from completing the tasks these jobs required. Arguing that the laws forced women to remain in low-paying and low-level positions, Paul called for the elimination of protective legislation and increased support for equal rights.[46]

In 1923, Paul and the National Women's Party came up with the Equal Rights Amendment, a piece of legislation designed to prevent gender from being used as a factor in determining the legal rights of either men or women. From the beginning, Mansbridge writes, "equal rights" meant "ending special benefits."[47] The original text stated that "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction" and that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."[48] If passed, Paul and other ERA supporters argued, the amendment would protect both women and men against sex discrimination.[49] ERA proponents worked diligently to ensure that a member of Congress would introduce the amendment each year, and by the time Steinem testified it had been before Congress for nearly fifty years.

Not all women--let alone all men--viewed the ERA favorably. Since its inception, the ERA sparked criticism from some women's groups and labor unions who feared that its passage would eliminate the protective labor and health legislation they championed to protect working-class and poor women.[50] Social reformer Florence Kelley, a contemporary of Paul's, strongly opposed the ERA and dubbed the amendment "topsy-turvy feminism."[51] Kelley challenged the ERA's method for achieving equal rights, declaring that "women cannot achieve true equality with men by securing identity of treatment under the law." The National Consumers' League, a powerful Progressive organization to which Kelley belonged, and organizations like the League of Women Voters, denounced the ERA on the grounds that it would harm working-class and poor women by stripping away their legal protections. From the 1920s until at least the 1940s, Mansfield notes, a coalition of Progressive groups, labor unions, and "most conservatives ensured its repeated defeat."[52]

Opposition from many federal policymakers further contributed to the ERA's failure in Congress. For more than forty years, the ERA remained buried in committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A 1970 memorandum by the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women notes the few exceptions: in 1948, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the ERA and, in 1956, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a second hearing.[53] According to the Council's report, the Senate Judiciary Committee "repeatedly reported favorably" on the amendment, and the Senate passed the proposed legislation in both 1950 and 1953.[54] The addition of the "Hayden Rider" in 1953, however, jeopardized the ERA's foundational tenets and its future success. The rider provided that the amendment "shall not be construed to impair any rights, benefits, or exemptions now or hereinafter conferred by law upon persons of the female sex."[55] Nullifying the ERA's call for the elimination of special privileges, the rider "accomplished its purpose of killing" the amendment each time it came up for a vote and even led many ERA supporters to refuse to endorse the amendment in its modified form.[56]

In 1967, the future of the ERA looked brighter when members of the newly formed NOW pledged to make the ERA a priority.[57] NOW acknowledged that some progress had been made since the 1920s, but women continued to suffer from sex-based discrimination in the form of lower salaries, fewer job opportunities, and limited legal resources. NOW and other ERA proponents promoted a revised version of the amendment, which maintained the basic claim that "sex cannot be a factor in determining the legal rights of anyone."[58] The new text read:


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.[59]


Friedan and Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives, led a campaign employing a number of strategies to promote the amendment and bring it to the floor of the Congress for a vote.[60]

In 1970, ERA supporters had new hope for the amendment's passage after the Pittsburgh chapter of NOW "took direct action" and sparked a chain of successes for the ERA.[61] In February that year, twenty NOW members disrupted a Senate committee hearing and demanded that the ERA be considered by the full Congress.[62] Their approach proved successful; Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) promised to hold hearings on the ERA later that year and to force the whole Congress to consider it. "This was the moment," Mansbridge writes, since "[l]abor opposition was fading." In addition, "because few radical claims had been made for the ERA, conservatives had little ammunition with which to oppose it."[63] Three months later, Senator Bayh, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, convened hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment.

The ERA hearings were held May 5-7, 1970. Over the course of three days, the committee listened to more than sixty witnesses and read more than thirty written statements submitted for the record. The witnessed included: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, a number of congressional and state officials, and representatives from unions and women's organizations. All together, the published report of the hearings contained more than six hundred pages of material from supporters and critics alike. The central questions they sought to address included whether the United States needed an equal rights amendment to combat sex-based discrimination and, if passed, how it would affect American women.


Interpreting Steinem's ERA Testimony


Although NOW, the U.S. Department of Labor, the United Auto Workers, and the American Civil Liberties Union, both political parties, and every president from Harry S Truman to Jimmy Carter had endorsed the ERA, some union groups and conservatives still refused to support the legislation in the 1970s. Advancing the same objection against nullifying special state protective laws, organizations like the American Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the John Birch Society, and later StopERA and Happiness of Womanhood (HOW) argued that the amendment posed serious threats to the home, the family, and the American democracy. Janet K. Boles writes that despite arguments in support of the amendments, many opponents "firmly believed" that ERA stood for "Evil Rules America."[64]

StopERA, a campaign led by Phyllis Schlafly, proved the most vociferous opponent of the ERA. In a flier sent to state legislators, for example, StopERA asserted that, if passed, the ERA would "make every wife in the U.S. legally responsible to provide 50% of the financial support of her family," wipe out a woman's present "freedom of choice" to take a paying job or be a full-time mom, and create "havoc in prisons and reform schools" by preventing sex segregation.[65] Concerned that the amendment would force women to be drafted into military service, legalize gay marriage, and pave the way for legalized abortion, StopERA worked tirelessly to prevent the amendments' passage.

Many of the specific arguments against the ERA were not widely publicized until after Congress passed the legislation and turned it over to the states for ratification. The concerns they expressed about feminism and the traditional views of womanhood they sought to protect, however, were well known prior to the ERA hearings. At the time of the hearings, opponents of women's liberation had negatively characterized feminists as radicals who lacked credibility or legitimate grievances. ERA supporters therefore not only had to persuade Congress to pass the amendment, they had to address some of the long-held views about women in society and answer the charges of anti-ERA witnesses. An analysis of Steinem's ERA testimony and its legacy provides insight into the rhetorical worlds of both the pro- and anti-ERA forces and helps to explain why the ERA--which seemed destined to become the next constitutional amendment--ultimately failed to win ratification.

Steinem delivered her testimony before the Senate Hearings on the ERA on May 6, 1970. Situating the women's movement within the larger quest for civil rights, Steinem argued that women's oppression was an important political issue and called upon Congress to place women's rights on the legislative agenda. At the same time, Steinem attempted to stabilize the movement's image and appeal to a broader audience during what Bonnie Dow has identified as second-wave feminism's "crucial year for public awareness."[66] Clearly recognizing the movement's need to portray itself and the ERA more positively, Steinem characterized feminism not as a radical attempt to disrupt society, but rather as a well-intentioned effort to promote democratic principles. The pro-ERA cause, she argued, was just another phase of the mainstream civil rights movement.

Through her testimony, Steinem managed to politicize women's rights while simultaneously making the ERA seem more mainstream. She presented her views as "broad ideas that required right feelings rather than intellectual understanding or hard choices."[67] Her uncomplicated and broadly appealing arguments and her ability to present them in "simple messages spoken strongly" gave "profound strength" to her message and helped generate media attention and public support for women's equality.[68] Steinem, then, not only contributed to the ERA's initial successes in the early 1970s, but also helped redefine the debate for years to come.

Steinem appeared before the committee as the media-designated spokesperson for American feminism.[69] Not only was she a "writer and critic of some renown," Senator Birch E. Bayh (D-IN) said in introducing her, she also had worked on several political campaigns and served as a member of the Policy Council of the Democratic Committee.[70] "And," Steinem herself added, "I work regularly with the lowest-paid workers in the country, the migrant workers, men, women, and children both in California and in my own state of New York" (1).[71] Defining herself as a professional, a participant in mainstream politics, and an advocate for workers and children, Steinem showed that she was not just some angry radical--as some of the ERA opponents and some media had characterized feminists. Rather, she appeared as a credible and reliable witness, capable of speaking not only for the women's movement but on behalf of all U.S. women.

Unlike other pro-ERA witnesses who focused their testimony on the issue of legislative protectionism, Steinem took a broader perspective of women's oppression. She framed her discussion within the context of civil rights and repeatedly emphasized the similarities between women and other oppressed minority groups. Drawing upon her own experiences with legal and social discrimination, Steinem explained that she had been denied basic services and work opportunities available to the average man. "Most important to me," she continued, "I have been denied a society in which women are encouraged, or even allowed to think of themselves as first-class citizens and responsible human beings" (3). Like other oppressed groups, she argued, women had clearly been denied the basic constitutional rights and opportunities for social, professional, or civic equality. Yet, Steinem pointed out, women lacked the same "legal remedies" as those often accorded to blacks and other minorities (3).

Steinem implored policymakers to recognize women's oppression as a serious problem and to take action. She broadened the scope of the issue to include all women and called upon Congress to listen to their common plight. She stated: "I hope this committee will hear the personal, daily injustices suffered by many women--professionals and day laborers, women housebound by welfare as well as by suburbia." Characterizing the pro-ERA position as that of the majority, Steinem elevated the urgency of this demand and, like other ERA proponents, tried to show how "in their unity, the proponents become the majority."[72] She stated: "We may appear before you as white radicals or the middle-aged middleclass or black soul sisters, but we are all sisters in fighting" against outdated sex-based myths (7). Reinforcing her argument that women would no longer allow Congress to ignore their concerns, she stated: "We have all been silent for too long. But we won't be silent anymore" (7).

Although ERA proponents claimed to represent all women, Steinem recognized that some Americans either opposed the ERA or did not know much about it at all. Acknowledging her immediate need to convince Congress to pass the legislation and to make it acceptable to a mainstream audience, Steinem directly responded to anti-ERA arguments and "implicitly attacked" their foundation.[73] She emphasized the amendment's focus on equality--a principle, she implied, that all American's supported. Prior to reading her prepared testimony, [74] for example, Steinem responded to an anti-ERA witness, Myrna Wolfgang, who had spoken on behalf of the Michigan Women's Commission and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union. Steinem highlighted points of agreement between pro- and anti-ERA forces, stating: "Before I get on with the statement I would like to point out that Mrs. Wolfgang does not disavow the principle of equality [but] only disagrees on the matter of tactic" (2).[75] Strategically reframing the terms of the debate, Steinem first suggested that the antagonists did not dispute whether women needed legal protection against discrimination, but rather disagreed over the means of achieving that goal. By the same token, Steinem explained, ERA supporters did not deny that differences existed between men and women as some anti-ERA advocates had alleged. Unlike their opponents, however, ERA proponents did not view these differences as a justification for discriminating against women. Shifting the focus to job requirements rather than gender, she argued that Congress should support legislation based not on sex, but rather should establish standards that were "sensibly suited to the requirements of the job itself" (2). These changes, Steinem and other ERA advocates proclaimed, would give women workers equal opportunities in the workplace.

Although Steinem did not overtly disparage anti-ERA advocates, she clearly portrayed the opposition as ill-informed. For instance, Steinem's announcement that Wolfgang, a union member, was willing to give up a "long-term gain for a short-term holding action" highlighted the oppositions' flawed plan and their inability to recognize the magnitude of the problem (2). Rhetoric scholar Sonya Foss has observed this strategy in other pro-ERA rhetoric. Foss writes that ERA proponents frequently portrayed women who opposed the amendment as a "middle-class, white minority" who were either dependent on their husbands or had "no idea of the nature of life for a woman who must work to survive."[76] Pointing out Wolfgang's failure to understand the negative affects of supposedly protective legislation, Steinem characterized her as part of an "unaware minority" that contributed to the problem.[77]

Throughout her testimony, Steinem continued to cast doubt on the opponents' views by refuting the sex-based stereotypes that underlay them. She offered scientific studies, analogies, and statistical evidence to dispute five of the misconceptions that, she argued, fostered sex-based discrimination and, like racial myths, inhibited women's advancement in society. They included the beliefs that: 1) women were biologically inferior to men; 2) that women were already treated equally in society; and 3) that women held great economic power. Additionally, Steinem challenged the myths that 4) children needed full-time mothers; and 5) that the women's movement was not politically significant, would not last, or was somehow not serious. In refuting these myths, Steinem both discredited the opponents' assumption that women needed special protection and constructed a positive case for the ERA. While doing so, she further linked women's oppression to the larger civil rights movement by illustrating the similarities of sex- and race-based myths. Steinem presented these refutations in simple statements and images that resonated with mainstream audiences and provided the media with short "sound bites" they could easily include in news reports.

When challenging the myth that women were biologically inferior, Steinem offered life expectancy statistics and other health-related evidence to suggest that women were actually biologically superior to men. This assertion not only challenged the basic premise upon which special protection was based, but also provided support for legislation that "treats individuals, not groups bundled together by some condition of birth" (11). Just as race had little effect on individual talents and abilities, she argued, neither did sex differences. The failure of Congress to recognize sex-based discrimination as an important political issue would merely perpetuate the same civil rights violations it had sought to end.

When refuting the myths that women already possessed equality and great economic power, Steinem again pointed out the flaws in the opponents' arguments. For instance, Steinem reminded her audience that women workers, like minority workers, were at a disadvantage. Women did not receive equal pay for equal work, equal training, or encouragement in the workplace. Furthermore, she argued, women were particularly susceptible to "internalized aggression," a condition that occurs when victims of aggression absorb the "myth of their inferiority" and "come to believe" that their group is second class (14). Just as this condition threatened other oppressed groups, so too did it endanger women. Likewise, Steinem showed how the myth of women's economic strength fueled a false sense of power. She noted that women comprised "only five percent of all people in the country who receive $10,000 a year or more" (20). Refuting the myth of women's economic power, Steinem showed that women's actual financial earnings and assets paled in comparison to their more privileged male counterparts.

Steinem's first three points effectively debunked some of the sex-based myths frequently offered in opposition to the ERA. In the remainder of her testimony, Steinem refuted some of the myths surrounding the women's movement and its goals in an effort to bolster the movement's image. First, Steinem denied claims that the movement or the ERA would threaten America's families by forcing women to enter the workforce. She highlighted the ERA's positive effects on families, asserting that women's increased work opportunities and rights would take some of the burden off of men and liberate both sexes from the gender roles that confined them. Second, she explained that the women's movement was a serious effort to promote social and legal justice for all Americans. Steinem emphasized the movement's unity and its determination to secure "full constitutional rights" (29), stating: "We are fifty-one percent of the population; we are essentially united on these issues across boundaries of class or race or age; and we may well end by changing this society more than the civil rights movement" (27). Further emphasizing the movement's commitment to social justice and democratic ideals, Steinem assured her critics that women were changing their own consciousness and would change that of the country as well.

Steinem's refutations constituted a well-constructed response to the immediate demands of the situation. She, like the other pro-ERA witnesses, clearly recognized the immediate goal to persuade the Senate Judiciary Committee to promote the ERA's success in Congress. On one hand, then, Steinem's testimony was an effective, well-supported point-by-point refutation of the anti-ERA arguments. She not only articulated a vision of women as productive members of society, she presented this vision of equality in a way that appealed to mainstream Americans.

At the same time, Steinem's testimony promoted the long-term success of the women's movement. Her characterizations of women's struggles bolstered her case for the ERA and further depicted the cause as a crusade for a better world. Foss observes that ERA proponents saw women as being excluded from a "desirable world" of rights and privileges and "built into their reality" the notion that women were fighting against discrimination. This image, Foss explains, functioned to "magnify the importance of the ERA controversy for the participants" and enlarged their battle into a "struggle of justice and equality against tyranny and oppression."[78] ERA proponents viewed themselves as "sacrificing and working for a vital cause of freedom and liberty" and described those who opposed women's equality as either uniformed women, male oppressors, or "tyrannical monsters who consciously and deliberately turn their backs on women and their rights."[79]

Steinem recognized, however, that a majority of Americans did not perceive ERA proponents or feminists as favorably as they perceived themselves. In an illustration of what Dow has called a "considered attempt" to stabilize feminist ideals and activities for a "presumably middle American audience," Steinem offered a more mainstream vision of the women's movement that clearly articulated its emphasis on equality and civil rights.[80] In her final point of the speech, Steinem overtly highlighted the parallels between the women's movement and the civil rights movement. She again argued that both African Americans and women suffered from similar forms of oppression, stereotyping, and discrimination. And like African Americans, Steinem assured the movement's critics, women would no longer silently accept their subordinate status. Merging the two groups' interests together, she stated: "Neither group is going to be content as a cheap labor pool anymore. And neither is going to be content without full constitutional rights" (29).

Dow has discussed the rhetorical strength of this strategy, noting that the ERA advocates' historical and contemporary comparisons gave the movement "credibility through association with other movements," whose logic was more familiar to the audience.[81] Steinem, in drawing out these parallels, not only reinforced the significance of women's oppression, she contributed to the movement's larger efforts to provide a relevant and palatable analogy for mainstream audiences. In addition, as Sydney Ladensohn Stern observed, Steinem's media appeal helped to ensure that her arguments would be "picked up in newspapers all over the country," making them available to an even larger national audience.[82]


Legacy of the Speech


The ERA hearings triggered a number of short-term successes for the pro-ERA movement. In June of 1970, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported favorably on the amendment. In 1971, the House of Representatives approved the ERA by a vote of 354-24, and in March 1972, the Senate approved it by a vote of 84-8.[83] Effectively working its way through Congress, the ERA seemed destined to become the next constitutional amendment. A memo submitted by the Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women predicted that the ERA would easily win approval from the thirty-eight states needed to ratify the amendment: "Since the proposed equal rights amendment has failed to pass Congress for the past forty-seven years, it may appear to be a 'loser,' although admittedly, it took women more than fifty years to secure the adoption of the nineteenth amendment."[84] Forecasting the amendment's success, the Council added that the demand for equal rights and support for the amendment was "becoming widespread, with a corresponding increase in the likelihood of early adoption of the amendment." The initial outpouring of state support seemed to confirm the council's predictions. Almost immediately, twenty-two states ratified the amendment.[85] By the end of 1973, thirty state legislatures had ratified the ERA, and three more states followed suit in 1974. By 1976, with the amendment just four ratifications short of the required thirty-eight, the amendment's "passage seemed fairly certain."[86]

Gloria Steinem contributed to the ERA's initial success during the ratification process. During the 1970s, she took the lead in the pro-ERA campaign and firmly established herself as a prominent figure in the women's liberation movement. Steinem helped to strengthen the movement by "bridging the gap between the early militants whose vehemence frightened away people they wanted most to reach, and thoughtful, dedicated women who understood women's status must change."[87] In 1971, a year after testifying before Congress, Steinem, along with others, created Ms. magazine, which "helped to shape contemporary feminism." According to founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Steinem translated "a movement into a magazine."[88] The following year, McCall's magazine named Steinem "Women of the Year." Bradley asserts that this honor further established Steinem as the "media-designated solution for a public seen to be wearying" of the confrontational style of other feminist leaders.[89] According to Bradley, "Steinem personally was responsible for much of the dispersal of the feminist message over the mass media landscape" in the 1970s.[90] Steinem later went on to write multiple books and articles about women's concerns and to deliver a number of public addresses.[91] She continues to speak out on women's issues today.

Yet as the ratification debate dragged on through the 1970s and 1980s, pro-ERA advocates found themselves increasingly on the defensive in the debates over ERA policy implications. StopERA and other campaigns designed to defeat the ERA exploited uncertainties over how courts might interpret the ERA to their advantage. Bradley writes that "when Schlafly and her supporters decided to challenge the ERA, they found perhaps the second wave's most vulnerable place: an ill-defined issue that was open to multiple interpretations."[92] According to Donald T. Critchlow, Schlafly and other ERA opponents "tapped into the anxieties of traditional-minded Middle Americans" over "changing social and cultural norms."[93] She effectively articulated a damaging interpretation of the ERA's impact, which included claims that the legislation would invalidate all laws that required husbands to support their wives, require women to register for the military draft, repeal all anti-abortion laws, and allow for same-sex marriage.[94] Asserting that the ERA was more than just a question of defining rights and responsibilities, Schlafly and the other ERA opponents transformed the ratification debates into a "symbolic and highly emotional overlay of conflict over issues such as marriage, divorce, child care, abortion, and homosexuality."[95] According to Bradley, the ERA developed into a "battle over dominant hegemony, with the implication there would be a winner and a loser."[96]

At first, these anti-ERA arguments appeared to have little effect. By 1977, however, the anti-ERA forces had "effectively blocked ratification in the states."[97] Between 1976 and 1981, Mansbridge notes, there was a "significant increase" in public opposition to the ERA in the unratified states.[98] No states ratified the amendment in 1976 and only one state accepted the ERA in 1977.[99] By 1979, Tennessee, Nebraska, Idaho, and Kentucky had even voted to rescind their ratifications, with South Dakota later following suit. These setbacks, however, did not discourage ERA supporters. Determined to win ratification of the ERA, proponents appealed to Congress to extend the ratification deadline beyond March 1979 so that they could secure ratification in three more states.

By that time, however, the amendment already seemed destined for defeat. Although many Americans claimed to support the ERA's principles, they refused to support the amendment's ratification. As the second deadline approached in June 1982, the ERA still had failed to win ratification by thirty-eight states and eventually died.

Much to the dismay of ERA proponents, the anti-ERA campaign effectively played upon the American public's worst fears. According to Mansbridge, the campaign against the ERA succeeded because it shifted the debate away from equal rights and focused it on the possibility that the ERA might bring radical changes in women's traditional roles and behavior. This strategy not only persuaded many Americans who knew little about the ERA, but also turned some earlier ERA supporters against the cause. Mansbridge explains: "Many nominal supporters took strong antifeminist positions on other issues, and their support evaporated when the ERA became linked in their minds to feminist positions they rejected."[100] Although ERA advocates like Steinem repeatedly insisted that the amendment would not threaten American women, families, and society, they could not overcome the fear and suspicions fostered by Schlafly and other opponents of the amendment. Additionally, the media's impartiality allegedly hindered their cause, according to Steinem, and bore a "heavy responsibility" for the ERA's defeat,[101] giving equal weight to anti-ERA arguments that most feminists considered ludicrous.

The debate over the ERA is significant to understanding ongoing disputes over feminism and women's rights. The debate brought to a head the sixty-year dispute over special protection, raising questions about women's biological inferiority and their need for governmental protection. The ERA debate also brought to the fore contemporary concerns about the changing role of women and its effects on families and society. Still today, feminists and antifeminists like Schlafly compete to establish their views of women as the dominant understanding. Like the conflicting "rhetorical worlds" of the pro- and anti-ERA forces in the 1970s and 1980s, contemporary debates leave "little or no common ground" on which the two sides can agree.[102] Contemporary debates over feminism and women's role in society continue to reflect two incommensurable worldviews.

Despite the ERA's defeat, the quest for social justice continues to be an important goal of the contemporary feminist movement. The National Organization for Women continues to promote equal rights through a new Constitutional Equality Amendment (CEA), which actually broadens its campaign for equality, justice, and fairness beyond women's rights.[103] In addition to addressing feminist concerns about equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal rights, the newly proposed amendment further seeks to combat discrimination based on sexual preference. As the women's movement pursues its goals and builds links to the gay rights movement, we may see another attempt to pass an equal rights amendment. When that time arrives, advocates will undoubtedly turn to Steinem's ERA testimony and the earlier ERA debate for inspiration in fashioning their arguments and their rhetorical strategies.


Last Updated—January 2007


Jill M. Weber is a Doctoral Student at The Pennsylvania State University. She would like to thank Lisa Hogan, J. Michael Hogan, and Shawn J. Parry-Giles for their help with the project.



[1] Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 8-9. Sharon Whitney, The Equal Rights Amendment (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984), 11.

[2] "U.S. Constitution: 19th Amendment,",

[3] U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970.

[4] Bonnie Dow has identified this as a common rhetorical strategy within the rhetoric of the women's rights movement in the 1970s. See Bonnie Dow, "Fixing Feminism: Women's Liberation and the Rhetoric of Television Documentary," Quarterly Journal of Speech 90, no. 1 (February 2004): 53-80.

[5] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 22.

[6] According to Mansbridge, survey questions that showed people what the ERA actually said--a statement of principle regarding equal rights--"always produced greater approval" than questions that simply identified the ERA as an amendment to the constitutional or that suggested possible consequences of its passage. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 23, 26.

[7] Patricia Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism: 1963-1975 (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2003), 144.

[8] Margaret B. DiCanio, Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 to the Present (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998), 269.

[9] Gloria Steinem, "A Balance Between Nature and Nurture," National Public Radio,

[10] Patricia Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem: A Biography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 20-21.

[11] Caroline Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (New York: Dial, 1995), 23.

[12] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 23.

[13] Sydney Ladensohn Stern, Gloria Steinem: Her Passions, Politics, and Mystique (Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane, 1997), 53.

[14] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 22.

[15] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 22.

[16] DiCanio, Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 to the Present, 269.

[17] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 50.

[18] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 69

[19] Steinem, "A Balance Between Nature and Nurture."

[20] Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 263.

[21] Steinem, Moving Beyond Words, 263.

[22] DiCanio, Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 to the Present, 269.

[23] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 161.

[24] Steinem, Moving Beyond Words, 269.

[25] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 169.

[26] Steinem, Moving Beyond Words, 269.

[27] Steinem, Moving Beyond Words, 269. (Original emphasis)

[28] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 185.

[29] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 52.

[30] Both Heilbrun and Bradley discuss Steinem's seemingly instant fame. See Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 186; and Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 158.

[31] See Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 143-144; Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 187-188; and Amanda Izzo, "Outrageous and Everyday: The Papers of Gloria Steinem," Journal of Women's History 14, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 151-154.

[32] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 144.

[33] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 143-144.

[34] Amanda Izzo, an archivist assistant who arranged the papers of Gloria Steinem at Smith College, noted that critics within the women's movement described Steinem's brand of feminism as "limited" and "watered down." They also accused her of exploiting the attention she received to promote herself and her view of feminism "at the expense of the radical vision put forth by other feminists." Izzo, "Outrageous and Everyday: The Papers of Gloria Steinem," 152.

[35] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 189.

[36] Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 187-188.

[37] For a more detailed analysis on political activism in the 1960s, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, rev. ed. (New York, Bantam Books, 1993).

[38] See Civil Rights Act of 1964, Public Law 88-352, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (July 2, 1964); and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Public Law 89-110, 98th Cong. 89th Cong., 1st sess. (August 6, 1965)

[39] Betty Friedan, "Statement of Miss Betty Friedan, Author of 'Feminine Mystique' and Founder of NOW," U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970, 493.

[40] Friedan, "Statement of Miss Betty Friedan," 493.

[41] "Honoring Our Founders," National Organization for,

[42] Various women's rights advocates and feminists set aside their individual agendas and goals and, according to Ronald Reid, "worked almost unanimously" to pass the ERA. Ronald F. Reid, ed. American Rhetorical Discourse, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1995), 817.

[43] "U.S. Constitution: 19th Amendment,"

[44] Janet K. Boles, The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment: Conflict and the Decision Process (New York: Longman, 1979), 1.

[45] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 8.

[46] Paul discusses the initial controversy surrounding the ERA and her arguments in support of the legislation in "Conversations with Alice Paul: Women Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment," interview conducted by Amelia R. Fry, 1973 (Berkeley, CA: Bancroft Library, University of California, 1975) available through

[47] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 8.

[48] "Equal Rights Amendment," National Organization for Women Web Site, Alana Jeydel notes that the American Equal Rights Amendment was originally proposed in the 1800s to assure universal suffrage. After the passing of the 14th and 15th Amendments, ERA proponents solely focused on sex discrimination. Alana S. Jeydel, Political Women (New York: Routledge, 2004), l44.

[49] "Conversations with Alice Paul."

[50] '"All Our Problems Stem from the Same Sex-based Myths': Gloria Steinem Delineates American Gender Myths during ERA Hearings," History Matters,

[51] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 8.

[52] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 8.

[53] Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, "The Proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution," U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970, 374.

[54] Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, "The Proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution," 374.

[55] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 9.

[56] The memo notes the "Hayden rider," which provided that the ERA "shall not be construed to impair any rights, benefits, or exemptions now or hereafter conferred by law, upon persons of the female sex," successfully killed the amendment both times it was passed. Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, "The Proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution," 374.

[57] For a more complete history of the ERA between 1920-1970, see Mansbridge, Why We Lost the Era, 8-19 and "Conversations with Alice Paul."

[58] Whitney, The Equal Rights Amendment, 33.

[59] Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, "The Proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution," 373.

[60] See "Statement of Miss Betty Friedan, Author of 'Feminine Mystique' and Founder of NOW," U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970, 491-498. See "Statement of Hon. Shirley Chisholm, A Representative in Congress from the 12th District of the State of New York," U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970, 32-36.

[61] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 10.

[62] "Chronology of the Equal Rights Amendment," National Organization for Women Web Site,

[63] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 10.

[64] Boles, The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment, 7.

[65] Boles, The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment, 5.

[66] Dow, "Fixing Feminism," 55.

[67] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 144.

[68] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 263, 144.

[69] According to Heilbrun, Brenda Fiegan, a lawyer working with NOW, asked Steinem to testify in support of the ERA. Although Fiegan had never met Steinem, she recalled seeing Steinem on a television show "spouting facts and statistics about injustices of all kinds against women" and knew that she would be a strong witness for the pro-ERA cause. Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 207.

[70] Birch E. Bayh, Statement during the Equal Rights Amendment hearings, U.S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Hearings to Amend the Constitution So As To Provide Equal Rights For Men and Women, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., 5-7 May 1970, 331.

[71] Here and elsewhere passages in the "Testimony Before the Senate Hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment" are cited with reference to paragraph numbers in the text of the speech that accompanies this essay.

[72] Sonja K. Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy: Two Worlds in Conflict," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 281.

[73] Reid, American Rhetorical Discourse, 817.

[74] Steinem presented both spoken and written testimony for the Congressional record. A comparison between the two versions shows that she read her prepared statement aloud with the exception of her response to Wolfgang (2).

[75] With the exception of the word "but," this quotation reflects Steinem's statement as she spoke it according to the hearing record. This statement was not included in Steinem's written testimony and has been omitted from all other reprints of her spoken testimony.

[76] Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy," 280.

[77] Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy," 281.

[78] Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy," 278.

[79] Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy," 279-281.

[80] Dow, "Fixing Feminism," 54.

[81] Dow, "Fixing Feminism," 62.

[82] Stern, Gloria Steinem, 216.

[83] "Chronology of the Equal Rights Amendment," National Organization for Women Web Site.

[84] Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women, "The Proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution," 374.

[85] Susan S. Shear, "Introduction," Women & Politics 2 (Spring/Summer 1982): 1.

[86] Whitney, The Equal Rights Amendment, 40.

[87] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 158.

[88] "Herstory: 1971-Present," Ms. Magazine Online,

[89] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 158.

[90] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 165.

[91] See also Gloria Steinem, Marilyn: Norma Jean (New York: Holt, 1986); Gloria Steinem, Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1992); and Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts of Everyday Rebellions, 2d ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

[92] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 264.

[93] Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservativism: A Women's Crusade (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 4.

[94] National Council of Catholic Women, "ERA--Do You Know What It Means?", According to the Eagle Forum, this brochure was originally written and published in the 1970s. They reprinted it on their website because, they explain, "everything in it is still accurate."

[95] Joyce R. Lilie, Roger Handberg, Jr., and Wanda Lowrey, "Women State Legislators and the ERA: Dimensions of Support and Opposition," Women & Politics 2 (Spring/Summer 1982): 23.

[96] Bradley, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 263.

[97] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 18.

[98] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 18.

[99] Whitney, The Equal Rights Amendment, 81.

[100] Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 2.

[101] Cynthia Salzman Mondell and Allen Mondell, Sisters of '77: The Struggles and Triumphs in the Battle for Equal Rights (Dallas, TX: Media Projects, Inc., 2005), DVD.

[102] Foss, "Equal Rights Amendment Controversy," 288.

[103] For more information about the Constitutional Equality Amendment, see "NOW and Constitutional Equality,",