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Illinois Issues: Equal Rights Amendment - Yesterday and Today

Phyllis Schlafly among her supporters who opposed the ERA; in 2017 women in support of the ERA march in Springfield

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of  sex. 
—   The proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

This story will begin with an ending. In an Illinois Issues edition that came out in 1982, author Diane Ross wrote something about the last day of the Illinois General Assembly spring session that sounds eerily relatable to the present:

“Never had June 30 at the General Assembly meant so much: It was the last day to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the most volatile in recent memory. Never had the public’s expectations of what the legislature should do run so far beyond the political realities of what the legislature could do.”

The ERA had been passed by Congress in 1972, and it had bipartisan support, including that of then-President Richard Nixon. Many considered it a sure bet. By 1975, 35 of the 38 states needed had passed it through their own legislatures. Illinois was not one of them, even though bordering states, like Indiana and Wisconsin, had done so. When it became clear that not enough states could accomplish this within the original time allotted, Congress extended the deadline to June 1982. This deadline was debated, and some states rescinded their approval. As Ross wrote, In Illinois, ERA activists fought until the “bitter end.”


Credit Carter Staley (design), Rachel Otwell (content) / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

By 1982, the economic recession had many worried about how they would make ends meet, and the fact it was an election year meant state legislators had no intention of making hard, unpopular moves toward solvency (i.e., passing a tax hike) before voters cast their ballots in the fall.

Illinois had been a battleground in the women’s rights movement. There was literal blood shed (though not any human’s) by the “chain gang” — a group of radical activist women. On that last day of session -- June 30, 1982 -- they upped the contention exponentially, interrupting proceedings and holding a sit-in in the House chambers. Though the actions were shocking and what many considered over the top, the activists were representing, in a way, how many others in the state were feeling -- whether or not they were concerned with equal rights: They wanted to force the state to do what they saw to be its job.  

The issue has re-emerged in Springfield several times, most recently this spring.

Mary Lee Sargent is a longtime activist who lived in Champaign-Urbana for much of her life. She was active in the protests, which came to a head that spring day in 1982. She still contends, "Without the ERA we are second-class citizens: we do not have equal rights and equal protection under the constitution."

Credit Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Collections
Radical ERA activists write out massages in animal blood on the capitol floor.

True to the sentiment, Sargent founded the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, which carried out the numerous direct actions in support of the ERA. One involved writing the name of an opposing legislator, Republican George Ryan -- who later would become governor -- on the Capitol floor in pig blood. Acquiring that blood involved falsely convincing a slaughterhouse it would be used for a Shakespeare production. Clearly, there was plenty of theater, and not everyone agreed it was effectively arguing the case demonstrators were trying to make. And — similar to how budget woes now seem to be a tale long told in Illinois — infighting among progressive activist women was nothing new.

The Equal Rights Amendment was first drafted in 1923. One of its authors was Alice Paul, who had helped suffragists develop more extreme actions in their fight for the right to vote. Like the chain gang, women had tied themselves to public spaces. Like the chain gang, some of them refused to eat for their cause. In those early days, the ERA was contested by feminists who were divided on whether such language in the U.S. Constitution was necessary. In particular, those representing female laborers argued it might take away some work protections. By the 1960s, the second wave of feminism was ushered in, and with it came more support for the idea, and finally in 1972, congressional approval.


In Illinois, the chief sponsor of the legislation for ratification was a Republican woman, Rep. Susan Catania from Chicago. It came close to reaching the needed three-fifths supermajority vote from both chambers at various points, never reaching approval from both chambers during the same year, however.

 Phyllis Schafly certainly deserves credit for convincing lawmakers it was a bad idea. She and a league of proud homemakers passed out fresh-baked bread and pies to legislators while arguing against the amendment. Schlafly, an Alton resident who was born in St. Louis, founded the Eagle Forum, a nonprofit claiming to “lead the pro-family movement.” It is active to this day. She traveled the nation with her message of “Stop ERA” —  a slogan displayed with calculated simplicity on a red stop sign.

Schlafly talked about her career with NPR host Michel Martin in 2011 and explained one of her most often debated criticisms of the ERA. "What that amendment would do is to make all laws sex-neutral. Well, the typical, classic law that is not sex-neutral is the draft registration law. And we were still in the Vietnam War in 1972. I had sons and daughters about age 18. My daughters thought this was the craziest thing they ever heard. You're going to have a new amendment for women? And the first thing is they'll have to do is sign up for the draft like their brothers?"

Credit Eagleforum.org
Phyllis Schlafly in Washington, D.C., at a demonstration against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977

  While Schlafly promoted the importance of women in the home, she herself was a lawyer who had unsuccessfully run for Congress. She proved to be a skilled and savvy conservative strategist and thinker, an example of and crusader for the shift in the GOP party to its honing in on social issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights and “family values.” Upon her death in 2016 at the age of 92, media outlets like CNN declared her a “towering social conservative figure.” Of course, regardless of the ERA’s failure thus far, today abortion is legal, gay marriage is a federal right, and women are allowed to fight in the military.

Third wave feminismbegan in the 1990s; many scholars of the subject say it’s the one we’re still in. With it came increased attention on issues facing queer women and women of color, and the problems facing society when it comes to racism and discrimination based on one’s gender identity and/or sexual expression.

And, here we are in 2017, a year in which audio recordings of the current president once talking explicitly about sexually assaulting women were made public before his election. That election, however, resulted in the rising of women, many of whom had not previously been active in politics, calling for “resistance.”

Today, Terry O’Neill heads the National Organization for Women, or NOW, based in Washington, D.C. It got its start in the 1960s, fighting for the ERA, among other causes. She was preceded by its first president, the late Betty Friedan –  a Peoria native and author of influential books like The Feminine Mystique. In 1980 Friedan was joined by fellow famed feminist Gloria Steinhem and tens of thousands of ERA supporters at a Chicago rally. Some estimates say 80,000 people were there in Grant Park. Meanwhile, O’Neill says there’s no question that the current political atmosphere has made the time for ratification -- well, now.  

“There really is more of a need for the ERA today than there ever has been," O'Neill says. "Frankly, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, we are facing now some truly dire threats to women’s economic security and to their access to health care and, of course, cutting off women’s access to health care directly imperils their economic security.”

NOW adopted its yearly action plan this June, and ratification of the ERA was one of the top priorities. O’Neill says Illinois has been a true battleground state. She credits Schlafly with leveraging her Catholic faith and conservative values effectively against the movement. “The vast majority of the money that went into opposing the ERA ratification in Illinois was the business community," she says. "It was very short-sighted but, to be clear, all of these businesses are heavily, heavily dominated by men, as of course is the Catholic church ... These are male-dominated institutions.”

Credit C/O Jennifer Lee
Women gathered at the Women's March on Springfield in April 2017

Jennifer Camille Lee of Springfield’s Action Illinoisand Women Rising-Illinois has helped organize actions like the “Illinois Women March on Springfield” this spring. During it, longtime supporter, State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, addressed the crowd. “I have been sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment resolution in the House for many years," he called out. "It is difficult to pass, but I have no idea why. When you go home, you’re going to call your legislators, and you are going to urge them and ask them and beg them to do the right thing, right?” In 2014, the Illinois Senate passed a resolution for ratification, but it failed to get through the House.  

his year, SJRCA 4, another resolution proposing ERA ratification, was introduced in Illinois. It got out of committee, but that’s as far as it’s gone. State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is the chief sponsor. “There’s definitely a growing effort now to focus on trying to get it passed,” she says. Steans says she believes there are still enough votes in the Senate, but she’s not sure about the House. She says work is currently underway to secure those votes. “To get a supermajority in the House, we’re going to have to have some Republican support. For some reason, this has become a partisan issue. I’m working to try and stop that.”

Says Lee, “We want to do our part to pass the ERA for the United States.” Earlier this year, Lee penned an informative opinion piece on the topic. “Gender equality didn’t just become buzzword overnight," she wrote. "These are concepts that have to seep in the public consciousness and culture, the heavy lifting of much of this work was done for us by an older generation and passage of the ERA is a way to show our appreciation for that work.”

Credit NPR Illinois/91.9 UIS
Illinois Issues cover from August 1982. It shows a group of ERA activists holding a sit-in.

Not only can radical women activists take credit for that work, but also more mainstream groups like the League of Women Voters and the Chicago Bar Association, which held a conference earlier this year in support of the ERA. The ERA Illinois Coalition of Bloomington-Normal held a fundraiser earlier this month and plans to use the money raised for a rally in Normal this September.

But, just like in the ’70s, not all women are on board. Laurie Higgins is with the Illinois Family Institute, which has always opposed the idea. She argues that women, “are not institutionally deprived of any right, and this ERA has nothing to do specifically with women.” Higgins says she's worried that passage would mean men and women would be forced to share public spaces like locker rooms and bathrooms. “The physical danger is most significant to women ... The idea where we are getting to the point that it’s going to be considered hateful, bigoted and ignorant to recognize real, profoundly different sex differences should be troubling,” she says. Higgins also argues that the push for ratification flies in the face of the deadline imposed by Congress.

Offering a very different perspective is Evelyn Reynolds. She is a professor at Parkland College and chapter leader of Black Lives Matter Champaign-Urbana. She says while she supports the fundamental idea of the ERA, its language has grown outdated. She poses questions like, “How is ‘sex’ being defined? Are we including non-binary identifying individuals? Are we including transgender and intersexindividuals as well?” Reynolds represents the viewpoints of those who see gender and its implications in a nuanced way. Many social scientists agree that gender and sexuality can be fluid and are better represented on a continuum, rather than polar extremes. She talks about the importance of considering intersectionalityin the modern struggle for equality. Reynolds says, “I also have a hard time imagining real transformative benefits of something like this when it’s operating within a system that has continued to uphold racism and capitalism.”

Credit NOW.org

NOW’s O’Neill also points to the modern feminist goal of intersection and accounting for race and sexual orientation, something white feminists of decades past were criticized for their failure to do. "The ERA would be the platform for pushing forward on many policy fronts that would begin closing these gender and gender/race inequalities that we see across the country,” says O’Neill.

Today, it’s estimated that women earn 80 cents for every dollar that men do. That discrepancy is more severe between black women and white men. This year, on July 31, those concerned with this gender and race gap observed “Black Women’s Equal Pay Day.” As Forbes magazine explains, the reasoning behind it is, “That’s how long it would take for a black woman to earn what her non-Hispanic white male counterpart earned in 2016 while statistically being paid close to a third less.”  According to the American Association of University Women, “The gap was largest for Hispanic and Latina women, who were paid only 54 percent of what white men were paid in 2015.” The report also shows large gaps for Native American women and other women of color.

Since 1994, ERA advocates have been pursuing a "three-state strategy"– which includes Illinois. Nevada voted for ratification earlier this year so, according to the plan, only two more states are needed to get to the required 38 states originally needed for ratification. It's unclear what congressional or legal action could result.

While protections and entitlements for women, like The Equal Pay Act and Title IX, have been passed federally and, while some states including Illinois have language in their own constitutions similar or congruent to the ERA, it’s a topic which those with an eye on the statehouse could be hearing more about in the months to come. What’s also unclear  is whether enough legislators will finally heed the call of its supporters.

For more on this topic, check out the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's "ERA Fight in Illinois" oral history archives.

Rachel's reports currently focus on education and equity. She's also reported extensively on arts, community & diverse culture.