Sometimes we are lucky enough to be part of history, to fight for a cause that we believe in strongly. I was among many other local women who had that privilege some forty years ago, when Illinois was at the center of the fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
Although many people don’t realize it, the United States Constitution does not guarantee women equal justice under the law. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1922 to address that omission. It was reintroduced every year from 1923 to 1972, and finally passed Congress in 1972. Hopes were high that ratification would be swiftly accomplished before the seven-year deadline. Within the first year twenty-two states ratified, but progress then slowed, and by 1978 we were three states short of the 38 needed by 1979. This is when I, along with a small group of women, became involved by reconvening a local branch of the National Organization for Women (NOW). We worked on a variety of feminist issues, but ERA passage was a major focus.
In 1979 Congress passed an extension to the ratification deadline, with June 30, 1982 set as the new deadline. The fight was on, and Illinois was targeted by supporters as one of the three states needed. Champaign-Urbana answered the call. Our NOW chapter’s membership grew quickly, and we worked together with many other organizations and individual women, many of whom were represented in the C-U ERA Coalition. We raised money through bake sales, cookbook sales, garage sales, and sales at community bazaars being held at local malls. We instituted an annual Walk-a-Thon for ERA, which raised multiple thousands of dollars. All this fundraising supported the work. These were the days before the internet and easy online communication. We organized a speakers’ bureau to share information and dispel myths about the ERA, a phone bank to activate supporters, and letter-writing parties to contact legislators. We initiated a program, “Women Here and Now,” on the local cable channel. We walked miles canvassing door-to-door, and attended rallies and marches.
We had music to keep up our spirits. Kristin Lems, local U of I student and folksinger, was a favorite at both local and national events. She roused us with her “Ballad of the ERA” and “We Will Never Give Up,”all the words of which I can still sing. We sent busloads of people to nationally organized rallies in Springfield and Chicago, most notably the March and Rally for ERA on Mothers’ Day, 1980, attended by an estimated 90,000 marchers. We wore green and white to show our support for the ERA, and white to honor the suffragists.
We were living in the “Second Wave” of women’s rights activism, the first being the 72 years spent fighting for the right of women to vote in the United States. There was beginning to be more representation by women in government. Champaign-Urbana had Helen Satterthwaite as one of our state representatives, and Champaign had Joan Severns as mayor. In addition, there were now several women on city councils and the county board.
These were heady days, fighting together with other feminists on a variety of fronts. But, of course, we had opposition. Although the majority of people polled supported ratification of the ERA at the time, and despite the fact that the Illinois Constitution contained a passage nearly identical to the proposed ERA to the U.S. Constitution, passage in Illinois proved impossible. A major obstacle was the Illinois Constitution’s requirement for a three-fifths majority to pass amendments to the U.S. Constitution, a requirement which no other state had. Votes for ERA were used as bargaining chips by legislators on both sides of the aisle. And there was Phyllis Schafly and her “Stop ERA” followers dressed in red and spreading fear of unisex bathrooms, gay marriage and the military draft for women, among other “horrors.” Some of our opposition was also local. When the NOW chapter contracted to place a billboard in town for a month with a pro-ERA message, the owner of all the town’s billboards, the former local John Birch Society president, offered to refund the chapter’s money, indicating he had no intention of putting up such a message. After some hassles and contemplation of legal action, we got our billboard for two months, but in a different location than promised.
The final push for passage included a national march and rally in Springfield on June 6, 1982, and also more radical actions. “Women Hunger for Justice,” a fast by a group of seven women from outside the state, briefly joined by two local women, began in May. June 3 had been “A Day of Rebellion for ERA” at the state capitol. Participants included 17 women, several of whom were from Champaign-Urbana, who called themselves the Grassroots Group of Second-Class Citizens. They chained themselves to railings in the capitol for four days, conducted sit-ins, and wrote names of opponents in blood on the capitol’s marble floors. On July 1, the day after the deadline, Champaign County NOW placed an ad in the News-Gazette, signed by local supporters. It was titled “No Deadline on Equality.”
We never gave up, but Illinois did not ratify the ERA until May 30, 2018. Those of us who had fought for so long for that day, celebrated a long-overdue triumph. But the fight is not over. There are many obstacles to overcome before the ERA can become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Nevada and Illinois became the 36th and 37th states to ratify this year, but we still need one more state to have the 38 needed for passage. Then Congress needs to pass a bill removing the deadline for the ratification of the ERA. If this cannot be accomplished, legal appeals will be tried to remove it. The “three-state” strategy’s failure would necessitate a “Start-Over ERA” strategy. There have been bills introduced in Congress to support both of these strategies.
Some of us who fought for the ERA so long ago are no longer here. Some of us are still fighting. But new generations have taken up the fight. How can you help?
- Work for the election of candidates who support ERA legislation in Congress. H.J. Res. 53 is the legislation before the House to remove the deadline. 12 out of the 20 Representatives from Illinois districts support it. Rodney Davis, Representative from the 13th District, is not one of them. Call his office at (202) 225-2371.
- S.J. Res. 5 is the Senate bill removing the deadline. Both Senators Durbin (202-224-2152) and Duckworth (202-224-2854) are co-sponsors. Call their offices to thank them.
- For more information and resources, search at passtheera.com or www.eraeducationproject.com .
- The ERA Coalition is still around and was crucial in the victory in Illinois. Check their website at eracoalition.org to get more information or to get involved.
Laura Keller is a retired public school teacher, living and volunteering in Champaign