Forty-five years ago today, Shirley Chisholm speaks on behalf of the Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment:
“This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set further generations free of them.”
The role of the ERA in the women’s’ movement in the 70s is endlessly fascinating: in some frameworks it plays a similar role to the vote in the early movement: a single issue that galvanized many but threatened demobilization: in the first case, when the vote was achieved, in the second, when the ERA reached its final defeat. The debate about its importance was also a key part of the real but misunderstood divide between liberal and radical wings of the feminist movement – the former seeing it (largely) as central, the latter as (largely) a distraction. Like the vote, it was a huge, grassroot effort that by nature demanded an immense grassroots mobilization. As Bonnie Dow illustrates, the ERA gave the movement a central demand that ensured it was seen as a movement, and whatever predictable framing TV gave the movement, it was seen as such. If my immersion in the period has suggested one thing, it’s that the ramifications of the backlash that led to its defeat are central to any understanding of what a feminist “movement” – not a change in perspective but a social movement with all that goes around this – is and isn’t and might be yet.