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The Complexity of Equality and Why It Disrupted America’s Feminist Movement

Ultimately, the debate between feminism’s two factions came down to semantics and differences of opinion regarding inclusion and uniqueness of women.

After its introduction to Congress in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment illuminated the separation between politically motivated women in America. Two sides of feminism began to emerge afterwards, “one hostile to the blending of feminism with social justice goals, one captured by those goals” (Sklar, “Abstract”). This division lasted for multiple decades after the initial fissure, and was only slightly overcome with the development of the second wave of feminism during the 1960s. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) presented a wedge between women in America, and exposed the class differences of those women. However, only by studying the decades before and after the ERA’s inception can an understanding of why and how the division amongst feminists came about become clear. Differences of opinion regarding the definition of “equality,” and how such equality should be achieved, ultimately led to the separation within the feminist movement in America.

To discern why two forms of feminism emerged in the United States, the long-term changes between 1820 and 1920 must be studied. A new and vigorous women’s movement began to appear in American politics during the 1830s. This arrival during the 19th-century was “fostered by four social transformations: 1) the separation of church and state, which fostered the empowerment and pan-Protestant mobilization of the female laity; 2) the expansion of rights traditions, which sustained the woman suffrage movement; 3) the deepening of traditions of limited government, which encouraged women’s local voluntarism; and 4) the increase in middle-class access to higher education” (Sklar, “Introduction”). By the turn of the century, these changes in society led to increased women’s activism. Although college educated women were not allowed to partake in the professional realms of law, medicine, and academia, they sought out purposeful career paths in “groups working to alleviate the harsh social and working conditions produced by industrialization” (Sklar, “Introduction”). This group helped present legislation for women, leading to a division between that and legislation that applied to men. Women reformers led the charge opposing the Equal Rights Amendment simply because they thought it would threaten that “opening-wedge strategy” (Sklar, “Introduction”).

Meanwhile, during the 1910s Alice Paul and others founded the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CUWS) after being inspired by Britain’s own suffrage movement. Paul and her comrades implemented various tactics of civil disobedience, such as chaining themselves to fences outside the White House; after being jailed, many participated in hunger strikes and were force fed. The mainstream movement viewed these actions as less respectable, and “strongly disapproved of their radical tactics” (Sklar, “Introduction”). By 1916, Paul and her collaborators organized the National Woman’s Party (NWP). They began to plan for an amendment that would provide equal rights for women overall after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. This set the stage for a faction of feminism outside of the mainstream, as Paul and her supporters were financially independent (thanks to Alva Belmont, a well-off funder). The amendment they proposed became the central cause that the NWP focused on. The NWP gained notoriety and support in the South, “where social justice themes were weaker within the women’s movement, and where, even more than in other regions of the U.S., women faced many forms of legal discrimination” (Sklar, “Introduction”).

Changes in America’s labor movement also helped to construct the environment for feminism’s divide. The labor movement never gained any significant amount of steam during the 19th-century, and “massive immigration between 1880 and 1915 reconstituted the American working class around workers of many languages and cultures” (Sklar, “Introduction”). Different from countries in Europe such as England and Germany, no true labor party had any political impact within America. This can be explained by the adoption of suffrage for all white males by 1840. Voting white men were taken in by the two-party system before the country’s economy was altered by industrialization. This also happened before those changes created an industrial working class. Thus, there was no party that emerged that would have focused on class-based issues and workers’ rights. “Industrialization drew large numbers of young unmarried women into the industrial workplace” and “[w]omen reformers and male academics and lawyers developed a critique of unregulated capitalism that enabled them to challenge ideologies that supported unregulated capitalism in American courts” (Sklar, “Introduction”). With all of this in mind, an arena for debate involving the Equal Rights Amendment was born into existence.

When Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman originally wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, they sought to remove any legal distinctions between men and women when it came to areas of divorce, property rights, and employment. Their vision was one where women were equal to men in all regards, even if it meant sacrificing certain benefits given exclusively to women. In a speech at the National Headquarters of the Woman’s Party in 1924, Gail Laughlin (the first President of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs) “shifted the terms of the debate away from whether or not the ERA would erode protective labor legislation for women to an argument that characterized such legislation as inherently discriminatory against working women” (Introduction, “Why an Equal”). She noted that the ERA embodied the goal imagined during the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Laughlin stated that while women had gained access to voting, the ERA would allow women to go “forward to make real the complete equality visioned by the great leaders of 1848” (Laughlin, “Why an Equal”). She urged her listeners to understand that unless an amendment that clearly stated women and men have equal rights under the law was passed, women could never be guaranteed that they would not be discriminated against. Opponents of the ERA pointed to protective legislation for women (such as shorter hours of work) that would cease to exist if the ERA were passed. Laughlin argued that such laws actually impeded women, stating that “a law diminishing the hours of labor for women makes all women clock-watchers. Men and women in industry and business are competitors, and so long as women are subject to restrictions which do not apply to men, women will get only the jobs which no man wants” (Laughlin, “Why an Equal”). Laughlin seemed to suggest that such laws belittle women and place them in a distinctly different category that her and her followers saw as inferior. She ended her speech by proclaiming that the NWP would not rest until the “complete emancipation of women” had been achieved (Laughlin, “Why an Equal”).

Equal Rights became the NWP’s publication used to spread their ideas involving the ERA. In an article written in June of 1924, “new forms of feminism that were emerging in the 1920s, which discarded Victorian views of health and sexuality,” were discussed (Introduction, “Invalids?”). The article’s author examined how womanhood was portrayed similarly to a disease, and this inferiority complex led to laws of special protections. It ends with a notion that does not mince words: “Are women invalids? Ask the man who knows one and then contrast his answer with that of an economically independent woman. The result? That the latter, not the former, response conforms with the verdict of the ages” (“Invalids?”).

Feminists who opposed the ERA argued that the National Woman’s Party’s “blanket bill” would do more harm than good. The National Consumers’ League (NCL) published a pamphlet that considered the adverse effects of the ERA. The NCL argued that the word “same” would be too restricting for the courts to figure out, and that they would be confronted by a multitude of questions that would need to be debated themselves individually. If “same” means “no more, no less, no different, identical”, then, according to the NCL, a whole new problem would arise. Some of the questions in their pamphlet include: 1) “What becomes of the dower rights that women now have in many states?” 2) “Will illegitimate children have the name of both father and mother?” 3) What will become of the penalties for rape?” 4) Why should wage-earning women be thus forbidden to get laws for their own health and welfare and that of their unborn children? Why should they be made subject to the preferences of wage-earning men?” (“Why It Should Not Pass”). In a written debate between the two factions, Mary Van Kleeck touched upon such vagueness: “We hold that besides being unnecessary it is dangerous because its vagueness jeopardizes what we have and indefinitely retards what we have still to gain” (Paul & Kleeck, “Is Blanket Amendment”).

Opponents of the ERA, such as Elisabeth Christman, noted that a certain type of trickery of words was at play with the amendment. Christman argued that women were closer to being equal to men when equipped with protective laws. “Equal Rights” sounds “alluring”, and Christman pronounced: “We believe in equal rights for men and women, and labor laws for women make for equal rights in industry, because they help to remove women’s economic handicap and put them more nearly on a footing with men. It is because we believe in equal rights that we oppose legislation which in the name of equal rights would take away rights which the working women have won” (Smith, “Labor’s Position Against”).

Ethel Smith summed up the key belief of the anti-ERA faction when writing for the Life and Labor Bulletin. She told of how it is too idealistic and foolish to believe that one singular stroke would bring about equality for men and women; the issue is too complex, she proposed, to be fixed with a blanket amendment (Smith, “Equal Rights”). Opponents of the ERA seemed to hold more traditional views on gender. Many argued that the amendment would eliminate the men-only draft requirement and used similar arguments to strengthen their claims.

Ultimately, the debate between feminism’s two factions came down to semantics and differences of opinion regarding inclusion and uniqueness of women. Paul and her supporters (perhaps foolishly and too nearsighted) sought a simplistic and swift solution to their problems. Anti-ERA proponents seemed to understand that protective gender-based benefits actually helped women become more equal, and that the loss of such laws would not be worth the alleged gain in equality. They viewed the issue with practicality, rationality, and a certain type of sensibility. Paul and the National Woman’s Party idealistically and romantically viewed equality through a lens that was certainly different than the way mainstream feminists saw the issue. In the end, it was these two fundamental separate sentiments about humanity that led to the chasm within feminism in the United States; the Equal Rights Amendment was never fully ratified, yet modern proponents of the amendment point to its “ability to create substantive rather than formal equality” (Sklar, “Introduction”).

Works Cited

Laughlin, Gail, “Why an Equal Rights Amendment?” Equal Rights, 11 (5 April 1924), p. 61 (Gerritsen Collection of Women’s History, microfilm (1980)). Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Paul, Alice and Kleeck, Mary Van, “Is Blanket Amendment Best Method in Equal Rights Campaign?” Congressional Digest (March 1924), pp. 198, 204. Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish, “Abstract,” Who Won the Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s? Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish, “Introduction,” Who Won the Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s? Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Smith, Ethel, “Labor’s Position Against The Woman’s Party Amendment,” Life and Labor Bulletin, 2 (February 1924), pp. 1–2 (Periodicals on Women and Women’s Rights, Series 2). Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Smith, Ethel, “Equal Rights — Internationally!” Life and Labor Bulletin, IV (March 1926), pp. 1–2 (Periodicals on Women and Women’s Rights, Series 2). Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

“Invalids?” Equal Rights, XI (7 June 1924), p. 132 (Gerritsen Collection of Women’s History, microfilm (1980)). Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

Why It Should Not Pass: The Blanket Equality Bill Proposed by the National Woman’s Party (New York: National Consumers’ League, May 1922). Women and Social Movements database, accessed November 15, 2017.

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