“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
— Equal Rights Amendment
In July 1848, the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The purpose of the convention was to discuss the “social, civil, and religious conditions and the rights of women.” Over 250 women attended. (nps.gov, Feb. 26, 2015)
Why was this convention necessary? In 1769, every colonial government in America passed laws forbidding women to own property or keep money they earned. Everything belonged to their husbands or other male relatives.
In 1776, Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife, wrote her husband while he was meeting with the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. She asked, “Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” In 1777, women’s right to vote was revoked in every state.
In 1839, Mississippi became the first state allowing women to own property, as long as they had their husband’s permission. Women realized they would never achieve equality with men unless they demanded their rights. Therefore, Seneca Falls.
When the 14th Amendment, granting civil rights to those born in the U.S., was passed in 1866, the word “citizens” was understood to mean men only. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony challenged this interpretation by voting in the presidential election. She was charged with voting illegally, tried, convicted and fined $100.
By 1900, every state had finally passed legislation allowing married women to own property and keep their own wages. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the vote. This was progress, but the battle for full rights for women was still ongoing.
In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Alice Paul introduced the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment. It said, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” This proposed amendment was introduced to Congress that year but got nowhere.
In 1943, Paul rewrote the amendment to the text we know today: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This version was defeated in the Senate in 1946, 38-35.
Interest in the ERA revived during the 1960s struggle for civil and voting rights. On March 22, 1972, Congress passed the amendment. To become part of the Constitution, the amendment required ratification by 38 states. By the deadline of June 30, 1982, just 35 states had ratified it.
Progress toward equal rights has been slow. The Equal Pay Act, requiring equal pay for equal work by men and women, wasn’t passed until 1963. Even with that, women earn just a percentage of what men earn.
In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed, forbidding discrimination in employment by sex. Even with that, women could be fired for being pregnant. That wasn’t rectified until 1974.
These laws have moved women’s rights forward, but they can be changed at any time by Congress or the courts. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade is a perfect example of this loss of rights. The only permanent protection is a constitutional amendment.
In 2017, Nevada voters ratified the federal ERA. In 2022, we took a bigger step forward and voted in “the most comprehensive state version of the Equal Rights Amendment in the nation, a sweeping update that puts protections in the state Constitution for people who have historically been marginalized. Nevada’s ERA amends the state Constitution to ensure equal rights for all, ‘regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry, or national origin.’” (U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 10, 2022)
In 1923, Alice Paul, the author of the ERA, said, “If we keep on this way they will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1848 Convention without being much further advanced in equal rights than we are… We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”
The 150th anniversary of the 1848 Convention was in 1998, and we still haven’t ratified the ERA. March 22 was the 51st anniversary of the ERA passing in Congress. Nevadans should be proud that protections for our rights are enshrined in our state constitution. We must continue to work to make sure those rights are guaranteed all over the country. Happy Women’s History Month!
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.