Almost Touching the Sky: When the Equal Rights Amendment Appeared to Be Real
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On this day, March 22, forty-nine years ago, a landmark decision in US women’s history was made. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution was passed by the Senate in 1972, but it was still necessary that all states ratify it. Indeed, what signified a step further for women’s rights would be a ferocious struggle between conservatives and feminists. This amendment, first introduced in 1923, effectively established the equal rights of women and men in America, and any attack on this idea would be considered unconstitutional. Indeed, this proposal should be understood as the result of a very prolific period of the second feminist wave in the United States.
Several years before the ERA’s attempted ratification a large number of women joined together in various associations, most notably the National Organization for Women or NOW (1966), currently the largest of its kind in America, present in 50 states, and founded by prominent figures such as Betty Friedan to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society” (Friedan 1966). Whilst first wave feminism pursued the right to vote, the second wave aimed to achieve the same social rights as men. They fought for equal salaries and respect for women as citizens as well as reported violence perpetrated against women because of their gender. A myriad of publications, like Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, enriched the feminist discourse and added key ideas to articulate the struggle for the ERA.
Consequently, the ERA would have been a great success for the explicit, constitutional recognition of gender equality. After thirty-five states passed the amendment by 1977, the standstill onwards forced a ratification deadline delay from 1979 to 1982. As a result, this historic landmark would never be approved. Nevertheless, the struggle has continued for the past forty years.
The influence of feminism pervaded all spheres of life and changed assumptions rooted in a structural oppression of women, especially in the cultural sphere. Some movies began to showcase distinct, unconventional female roles. These characters were stronger and could face danger and defend themselves, namely Elen Ripley (Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979), Sarah Connor (The Terminator, 1984), and Princess Leia (Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977). These movies described the female protagonists as active and strong heroines smashing social norms and expectations. Even some cult films countered 1980s horror discourse by introducing independent women.The Slasher subgenre reinforced misogynistic discourse by killing all women who did not follow strict, conservative morality. Nevertheless, one movie offered a feminist perspective and exposed the predominant sexist view of women in horror. The Slumber Party Massacre by Amy Holden Jones (1982) presents a group of female friends who have to fight together, with no male help, to survive the mortal threat of Russ Thorn and his huge drill.
The importance of music in countercultural struggles was also a scenario for new models and values that questioned “established gender norms. Youths found their own space in pop and rock cultures, whose figures revealed new, alternative behaviors. Female singers redefined femininity which was traditionally associated with passivity and submission to men. One perfect example is Suzi Quatro, who composed “Can the Can,” and claimed “Put your man in the can, honey, Get him while you can, Can the can,” with electrifying rock music. Moreover, Yoko Ono sang “Sisters o Sisters” to tackle discrimination and the difficult situations that women faced day to day.
The relevance of this issue can be found in the #MeToo movement and prominent fourth wave feminism, which have brought the topic of gender equality up again in public debate and popular culture. FX production Mrs. America (2020) focuses on the struggle between feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug, and the female opposition led by Phyllis Schafly, who saw this amendment as a danger to many women’s position as housewives. I would recommend watching this series to learn more about the ERA and the women who debated it. Gloria Steinem was the role model not only for feminist activists but also for other women who began liberating themselves from male subjugations. Another key movie about Steinem is The Glorias by Julie Taymor, which is based on Steinem’s autobiography My life on the Road and her thrilling and difficult life.
To conclude, the ongoing struggle for gender equality has recently pervaded public discourse. Although the constitutional recognition of gender equality has not been proclaimed, the ERA was passed in Virginia in 2020, resuscitating the feminist agenda. Although this victory is still pending, the decade 2020 seems to be a feminist one when the dream of equality may finally be achieved.
Friedan, Betty. 1966. “The National Organization for Women’s 1966 Statement of Purpose.” Accessed March 03, 2021. https://now.org/about/history/statement-of-purpose/.
Goldman, Vivien. 2016. “The Story of Feminist Punk in 33 Songs.” Pitchfork, August 8, 2016.
Soule, Sarah A., & King, Brayden G. 2006. “The Stages of the Policy Process and the Equal Rights Amendment, 1972–1982.” American Journal of Sociology 111, no.6: 1871-1909. doi:10.1086/499908.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Tiburcio, Erika. 2021. “Almost Touching the Sky: When the Equal Rights Amendment Appeared to Be Real.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published March 22.