THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Roberta “Bobbie” Francis
“When we’re talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, pro and con, we’re talking about dueling world views.”
Interviewed by Dr. Simone Roberts, historian for Virginia NOW’s Foremothers History Project, April 10, 2014
RF: Hello, I’m Roberta Francis. I live in Chatham, New Jersey, and I’ve been working for about 40 years on first, the Equal Rights Amendment and then, many other issues of women’s advancement. I’ve come to the point where, while I would picture it’s time to retire, you don’t retire from this kind of work. You shift gears, perhaps, but it is something that really is a calling when you’re doing it in this way. I would like to share a little bit of what got me into this and where I’ve gone with it, and what I picture is the future.
I was in college from 1960-1964, and we kept being told we were a transition class, and I kept thinking, how do they know? Because how do you know what something’s transitioning to? But what I realized was we were transitioning out of the 1950’s and what preceded that into what the baby boomers were going to bring down on everybody. I think those who were looking at the demographics saw that coming in ways that I, at that age, couldn’t have imagined.
But what that transition did for me personally, and for a lot of people in college at that time – college is a transitional time for everyone, when you see new ways of looking at the world, if you’re doing it right, you are exploring a whole lot of things that take you to a new place in your life. I was very turned on by the civil rights movement that was going on in the early 1960’s, a very important time for the country and for equal rights, civil rights around racial justice.
I got very involved in that, but it took me a lot longer to really “get it” about the issue of justice on the basis of sex, equal rights for women as well as men. I came out of college with my social justice button well charged up, but went to graduate school for one year, got married, worked for a publisher in Boston while my husband was in graduate school. I had two children in ’69 and ’73 and was what you would call a stay-at-home mom, doing a little bit of copy-editing work on the side, until I had my feminist “click,” in about 1977.
I was a President of my local League of Women Voters in Chatham, New Jersey and I was asked if I had information in the League files about the Equal Rights Amendment. I looked and I read it: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. And I asked the most naïve question I had probably ever asked before in my life, which was “What’s to argue?” Which is what many people say when they read the Equal Rights Amendment.
I found out that what was being argued against the Equal Rights Amendment was the same thing that had been argued against the 19th Amendment, the right to vote for women, was argued against all kinds of advances to level the playing field for women and people of color in this country.
The feminist “click,” if you will, that I had around the ERA, was that I got it for the first time that there was a systemic system of sex discrimination, just as there had been, and still was, in many ways, a systemic system of racial discrimination in the country. It put all that together for me in a way that – now maybe we talk about it as intersectional, but you know, it was very much just at a gut level for me. Oh, my goodness, yes. Another cliché was, I had felt I was never “discriminated against” on the basis of my sex.
I was a good student and was encouraged to go to college, encouraged to go to graduate school, not encouraged to think of those in terms of a career the way succeeding generations of women were, but wasn’t told I couldn’t. So I didn’t feel a personal weight of sex discrimination in my life. On the other hand, I realize as I’m saying this, it’s what Margaret Mead said, “If fish were anthropologists, the last thing they would discover was water, because they’re swimming in it.”
As a young woman growing into adulthood in the United States, the last thing I discovered was systemic sex discrimination, metaphorically, because I was swimming in it, in so many ways, it just was the way life was.
Things have changed so incredibly in those succeeding almost 40 years since I got started on the women’s movement, 50 years since I graduated from college, that I can understand in a way that we didn’t … it was only the ones whose antennae were more sensitive, perhaps, who got it earlier, or those whose lives were so directly and clearly impacted by sex discrimination, wage discrimination, violence, etc., who got it a lot earlier. But thank goodness, more and more people, women and men, of course, are understanding this.
Interviewer: Let me ask you a question about that, because it went “click” and then you understood that there was a system of discrimination at work. That it had been making the same arguments since the arguments had ever been made. Possibly a little later, with the addition of the Phyllis Schlafly organizations and that kind of resistance – when you looked back when the click happened, and you reviewed your own life, how did the view change?
RF: That’s really interesting. One thing stuck out for me, and it obviously must have meant something to me at the time, because it was a very minor reaction. I went to graduate school for one year to get a Master’s in English literature at Boston University and there was a young woman a few years older than I was, perhaps, in the same studies. She came up midyear once all excited, and she said, “Oh, I just got accepted to Indiana for the PhD program,” which was really a feather in her cap. And I said, “Oh, that’s great.”
But I remembered thinking almost, why would she want to do that? It just wasn’t in the script for the people in the mushy middle where I was. She was out ahead. Again, it must have meant something to me. I must have been stirring already about being aware of such things because I remember that. I remembered saying, “That’s great, Gail,” and then thinking, “Oh, well. So what?” Just oblivious.
In retrospect, there were little incidents like that that jumped out at me as markers of how brainwashed most of us were to not think in the same way that a male would be thinking about building a career. Again, it wasn’t all women by any means, but certainly – born in 1943, coming out of the ’50s, postwar, women back to the house and kitchen and getting pregnant and that culture – that was all I knew for the early years. Again, I was very encouraged. My parents were very supportive of my academic work, of me as a person, and yet never in the sense of pushing the envelope in those respects.
Sam and I have been married for almost 49 years. We have a daughter who’s 44 and a son who’s 41. Our daughter has a PhD in Clinical Psychology. She has two daughters, whom she had about 10 years later in her life than I had our two kids. She’s had opportunities, because of her imagination for her life not being put in a script for her. But she’s also had challenges with that, of balancing the paid employment and the family and so on, that I didn’t have.
It’s life. You always must be balancing considerations. But for the generations of women, particularly coming after my generation, I think it’s far more positive. I wouldn’t even call it negative, but it’s just that the challenges of making those balances, negotiations, compromises, are more in the face of the generations of younger women. The work-family public policy has not kept up.
If work-family public policy had kept up with this, we would not be agonizing over some of the things we do about who’s watching the children, which, of course, gets sex-linked to how many mothers are watching the children. This is not to minimize the number of fathers who are doing far more nurturing and child care, and even being the parent at home doing the nurturing. That’s wonderful. As Gloria Steinem has said, when she sees the first male being asked, “How are you going to balance work and family?” she’ll feel like we’ve passed a watershed.
Interviewer: Do you remember when the proposals were coming out for things like universal child care?
RF: I have two data points, one of which is, I know that without knowing details of the legislation that Nixon had, was, I think he vetoed it, or perhaps it didn’t get out of Congress, but I think he vetoed a major child care bill. So it went way back to the early ’70s. At the time, the arguments were dredging up all kinds of accusations of literally saying Communist plans to have our children be taken care of by the government and brainwashed and this and that. I mean, it was the same kind of logic – and I say that sarcastically – that we see in most arguments against feminist advances or progressive legislation.
Interviewer: It’s always the Communists who are coming to get us again.
RF: That’s right. The other thing is, a friend of mine in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, near Chatham where I live, was a mom with elementary school or middle school kids at home around that time, maybe a little later. Becky said that the school board was asked to set up a program to let the kids stay at school for lunch. This is how recently it’s been that kids, most of the time in areas like this, at least suburban metropolitan New York, when they came home for lunch. My kids did in elementary school in the ’70s.
Interviewer: Sure. These were really little towns and it wasn’t far from school to house.
RF: That’s right. She remembers the debate at the school board being very vitriolic and that there was a school board member saying it was a Communist kind of thing. It is for those of us who like to think we apply logic, these arguments are so both illogical or unbased in fact, so doctrinaire, so following an agenda that needs to preserve the divisions, the gender roles between the sexes, so rigorously that we don’t believe. When I asked what’s to argue about the ERA, I had no idea what a third rail that was to touch. What an absolutely close to the core of people’s identity it is to preserve the poles, male, female. We can get out into the whole issue of sexuality and the spectrum that it exists rather the poles.
Interviewer: The balance within people [of] masculine and feminine traits.
RF: We are all genetically, hormonally, everything else, we have all of the same hormones. The balances are different in some cases, or the receptors that take estrogen better than testosterone or whatever. This is a digression, but I’ve done some work on oxytocin, which is being more and more … first of all, it wasn’t looked at much because it was more of a female hormone, having to do with childbirth and nursing. But it’s fascinating. You can almost do a history of attacks on gender equality by looking at how the research and how the attention has been paid to fight/ flight, testosterone, adrenaline, as opposed to oxytocin, serotonin, and the calming, the nurturing, the female hormone.
Interviewer: The bonding.
RF: The bonding, absolutely. It’s all fascinating. That’s one thing that’s so satisfying about doing this work. I started out, as I say, 10, 15, even years before I had my feminist “click” about sex discrimination as a system … I almost don’t remember when I felt that, “Oh gosh, we have a system of racial discrimination, and I should be against it.” I just grew up thinking this was awful.
But after I got hooked by the ERA, that issue led me to, and I’ll say metaphorically, three other issues that you couldn’t do the ERA without knowing about, and each of those leads you to three other issues, metaphorically, that you can’t do without knowing about bigger ones. Talk about an interdisciplinary or cross-cultural or cross-discipline approach to things! I’m just wondering if that is something that is harder for a lot of people to do.
There is a linear way of looking at things – okay, I’m in biology, or I’m in history, or I’m in this or that. When we get into feminist scholarship and interdisciplinary studies and all kinds of wonderful, inclusive pedagogy, as well as the substance of what’s being examined, there are a lot of people who aren’t as comfortable with that. They may even accuse it of being mushy or something, but hey, that’s life. Life is mushy in that respect and to get at the level of really engaging with what’s going on, you can’t be linear. You can’t even predominantly be linear. You have to have the certain linear pieces of your exploration. I’m not trying to make that a sex-linked accusation.
Interviewer: It’s not. It’s a style of thinking. It’s a sort of cultural bias towards certain styles of thinking that are valued or not valued.
RF: Women who are dependent on a male’s financial assets to keep afloat, some of them nevertheless have to push that envelope when they get to a personal place where it’s just intolerable. I’m not saying that all these external markers determine what their internal relationship to feminism will be, but it’s a lot harder to break away from the traditional hierarchy, if you will, when you cannot economically see yourself staying afloat very well, at least in the near term, if you do that.
I’ve gone through almost 40 years of learning about the Equal Rights Amendment, writing about it, talking about it, debating about it, and I come down to what sounds like a very – I’ll say mushy again, conclusion, because it doesn’t have a lot of hard facts to it, but it has the truth to it. It’s what you just said. When we’re talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, pro and con, we’re talking about dueling world views. We’re talking about people who read Equality of rights shall not be denied or abridged and say “What’s to argue?” That’s one worldview. And we’re talking about people who hear Equality of rights shall not be denied or abridged, maybe helped a little bit by all of the false arguments used against it — it will mean gay marriage, … .
Interviewer: No ERA and yet, gay marriage.
RF: That’s right. But also, abortion on demand, which is another … we know that’s a third rail issue, but that has been so misused in particular against the Equal Rights Amendment, but used as such a scary kind of thing about so many issues to keep people away from them.
Interviewer: Many people in those groups that are against this kind of progress really think that women at bottom are untrustworthy and potentially evil. End of story.
RF: End of story, and if we grant equality, if we affirm that women do have this equality, it goes back to the collective unconscious, maybe in the myths and the Pandora’s box. We’re letting Pandora open that box. We are bringing down the wrath of how many different theologies’ gods on us.
Interviewer: We are descended from a very misogynist culture, the Greeks. Other mythologies have a different attitude about women.
RF: We looked around at my feminist books, and I showed you a bookcase that I said is a feminist spirituality collection. It’s not because I am doctrinal at all. I grew up as a Protestant in a socially conscious progressive denomination in Pennsylvania, United Church of Christ. But I feel that some of the roots of the cultural misogyny can’t be dealt with without dealing with the theology that it comes out of. I find it interesting.
As an English major, I find all of the stories and those dimensions of it wonderful and obviously very three- if not more dimensional in terms of examining life. I don’t get into it in order to attack established organized religion, but I do get into it to be able to counter the abuse of what the real messages of the great religions are. Some have been so abused in so many ways that it’s so transparent as to how they’ve been abused.
For example, the teachings of Jesus have been so abused to be able to turn into some of the oppression of women that we see in organized Christian religion. How can people defend it, except that at some level it’s so different from the rational level that you can’t touch it. That’s part of the frustration, because not only can you not touch it in the theological realm, you can’t get at it then in the Congress, let’s say. The votes where people are voting on a bill around reproductive rights or pay equity. Yesterday, the Republican Senate Caucus contingent made it impossible to pass a bill on pay equity on Equal Pay Day.
Interviewer: There are some things you just have to outlast. You just have to keep a movement in a group of people alive long enough to hold on to that imagination of the future.
RF: Rilke said, “Some problems are not going to be solved. They’re going to be lived around.” That’s the approach I take with this. And we do hang on, and we have more and more energy going into living around this oppression over time. But it’s not something that’s going to happen in one generation, one century even. But if it did happen so quickly, it would not have deep roots. I wouldn’t want it to look like it happened quickly, because it could be overturned pretty quickly then too.
I just reread The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. For anyone who would like very interesting reading, … it’s got a little bit of an upper at the end, but it’s like, “Oh my goodness.” It is dystopian. I think it was 1986 when that was published, and I thought, “How did she …?” There were things going on that obviously were forerunners of some of what we’re seeing now in the religious right influence in legislative bodies, both in the states and in Congress right now. But there are things in that book that are not that many leaps of imagination beyond what we’re seeing in terms of the repression that’s going on now politically.
I do like the term “war on women,” and it’s been used for decades. It’s not something new that gets thrown around as a political bit of jargon that’s been thought up by the Democrats now. It’s been around for a long time, and the war’s been going on for a long time, and it’s getting more virulent because maybe the tide is in the process of turning. I just hope they develop the political skills to pull that off. The political skills will be different from what I think of right now as political skills. Obviously, the social media dimension is very different from what we’ve had to work with, and it’s very powerful and it is happening.
I’m not saying it’s specific to my generation and theirs. It’s with every succeeding generation going way back, but it’s important not to lose some of the old skills of how to play the game to make change happen and not think that having enough tweets gets somewhere. I’m not saying that too negatively or critically, but I do think that it’s something. But when I was in my 20’s, what political skills did I have?
My daughter has two daughters, who will be 8 and 5 this summer, and one thing I said to Erika early on when Emma, the older one was born, and Erika said it really helped her, much as it’s just a little cliché kind of statement. I said, “Just remember, when you feel up to here, just remember everything’s a stage, the good as well as the bad.” So, when the bad is the stage, you say, “Oh.” “But don’t worry,” I say, “it will change. But then you also have to remember the good will not stick around unless you work very hard to prolong its being there. It takes a lot of work.”
Reproductive rights and women’s reproductive health are so much bigger than, “Are you going to continue a pregnancy to term or not?” And it’s treated only as, “Will we give her the right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term?” To me, it’s so indefensible to do all that and then contend anything but that you are making decisions that you know, or have every reason to know, are killing people. But politics always puts a different face on things that they don’t want the real face to be showing.
Those of us working on these issues and day by day following – again, first thing that came to mind was the Paul Ryan budget, or following the policies that are detrimental to the point of killing, murder, let’s call it. If they want to call terminating a pregnancy in which the fetus is anencephalic murder, then let’s call passing the Paul Ryan budget murder.
Interviewer: Knowingly taking food away from children.
RF: Neither one is the appropriate term, but fight fire with fire. Yes, the food stamps. Again, that’s another example of how every issue – when you’re working on equal rights for women, and I’ll epitomize that by the Equal Rights Amendment, you can’t ignore all these other issues that are connected with it, up to and including if food stamps are cut. You’re absolutely very differentially impacting women and children. You’re causing some of them to have at the best real health problems, at the worst perhaps not even survive.
If I were in Congress, if I were in the House or the Senate and argued that way, I would be marginalizing myself so much in terms of the way you have to get things done in a venue like that, that I wouldn’t have much of a following or be able to wield much leverage. That’s part of the frustration too. The people we know in Congress who are with us still sometimes don’t stand up the way we would like to see them stand up.
Like President Obama. His election obviously made a lot of us cry with joy, and yet we see ways in which we would wish he did some things very much more energetically around some of these issues. Some things that we wish he weren’t doing. And yet, I try hard not to be unfair and expect that everybody in the highest political places where decisions are made and votes are cast, to expect every one of them to be saying what we have the luxury of being able to say outside of needing to work within that system. I think that’s the only realistic way. There are people who get very disillusioned, who thought Obama was going to be different. Give me him over virtually anybody else I could imagine. I don’t say that completely hopelessly, because there are always the ones who do stand up.
Interviewer: There’s Elizabeth Warren.
RF: That’s right. But the more people like that who do make a place for them[selves] in the Congressional pond, the more who do that and don’t get drowned, the better off we all are.
I’ve worked on a couple consultant projects with the Center for American Women in Politics, which is at Rutgers University at Eagleton Institute of Politics. It’s a national resource on statistics for women’s progress in political office at various levels. I worked on the staff and once moderated a workshop. Every four years, they used to do a forum for women state legislators from all around the country at the Hotel del Coronado in California. They would bring together all the women in state legislatures from around the country. And it was a fabulous, both a networking opportunity and an opportunity to hear candidates. They always did it the November before the presidential election and invited at that time the chief presidential candidates to speak.
I learned there, to my core, how important it is to have women in political office. The women when they get there have to look around and make sure they remain effective and don’t marginalize themselves, [but] if you have people there with the right kind of policies and consciousness, an awful lot of your lobbying work is already done, because those people will cast votes the way you would want them to. So that’s critically important.
And around the Equal Rights Amendment, … the Equal Rights Amendment did not grow out of the 1960-70’s women’s movement. It was first introduced in 1923. It was written by Alice Paul. It was written three years after the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, woman suffrage amendment. Alice Paul, who was one of the two major suffrage leaders in getting the 19th Amendment ratified, said, “We have only one right now affirmed equality for women and men in the Constitution. If we write one more amendment and say all of the rights held by citizens will be affirmed equally without regard to sex.”
The first wording was a little different. It said, “Women and men shall have equal rights in the United States and every place covered by its jurisdiction.” That was introduced in Congress in 1923 by – I love all the human touches too – it was introduced by a Representative, Daniel Anthony from Kansas, who was a nephew of Susan B. Anthony, one of the major suffrage crusaders of all time. I don’t want to use the word crusader anymore. Campaigner.
But that was not supported by a vast number of what you’d say were progressive organizations, because women’s organizations, for example, in unions, had fought hard to get certain protective labor laws to say women couldn’t work more than, I’m making it up, 45 or 50 hours a week or something. Specific to women, there was labor legislation that was protective.
When we look back, we see that those protections are ones that everyone has gotten in the meantime, and better. But at that point, they were real advances, and people were afraid those would be jeopardized if an Equal Rights Amendment were in the Constitution. What I don’t understand is why they wouldn’t have thought, “Well, instead of having that right for women disappear, why wouldn’t the ERA just mean that you had to give men and women the limit?” It’s just different ways of thinking in different eras.
In any case, for several decades, the ERA did not get much support other than Alice Paul and her National Women’s Party. In the 1930’s, Business and Professional Women’s Clubs supported it. In 1940, the Republican Party added support of it to their platform, four years before the Democratic Party added it to their platform in 1944. Talk about how progress is made step by step. That’s what happened with the ERA.
In the 1960’s, there was another shifting where finally AFL-CIO supported it, etc. So, in the late 1960’s, there was an effort to get it passed by Congress. It had been introduced in every two-year session of Congress since 1923. And in 1972, it finally was passed by Congress, both houses. As required to amend the Constitution, each house of Congress must pass the proposed amendment by a two-thirds majority, and the ERA passed in both houses by well over that. Then it is sent to the states, and three-quarters of the states must ratify it, approve of it.
The ERA went barreling out of Congress in 1972; it got 22 ratifications out of the necessary 38. Thirty-eight is three-quarters of the 50 states, and that’s what’s required to put it in the Constitution. It got 22, but then it was picked up by the conservative groundswell that was showing up. It’s part of what was caught in the revolving door after the civil rights bills of the 1960’s – especially the Civil Rights Act of ’64, which was signed by Lyndon Johnson, [which] was such anathema to the more conservative states, the whole Southeast quadrant of the country and some other states. Lyndon Johnson, the day he signed it, said to Bill Moyers, who was his press secretary at the time, that he knows he had just signed away the South to the Republican Party for 20 years, for a generation, whatever. I’m not sure what the literal quote is, but it was a really long time. He could not have even predicted how long.
But after he did that, then the Republican Party shifted its gears and tried to pick up a whole lot of those disaffected Southern Democrats, effectively doing so and therefore making it even harder to have progressive support in the South for things like the Equal Rights Amendment.
Without going into greater detail about that, the success of the ERA was blocked in part by what was happening in the greater political arena with the swing of the country toward conservatism. We saw that really hit with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. So, from 1972, when the ERA passed Congress, even though it went rolling out and got more than half the ratifications it needed right away, then all of the conservative politicizing of it as a chit to be traded off [was] one more big lie. The way that the ERA was portrayed and opposed, and what people were told by its opponents it meant, were all not true, and demonstrably not true.
For instance, Phyllis Schlafly was very involved in politics before the ERA came along with a group called the Eagle Forum. She had written A Choice, Not an Echo for advancing Barry Goldwater and the campaign where Goldwater was running for President. And she saw the ERA as an excellent chance for her to raise her political capital, which it did. She said it would mean that women would have to go out and earn 50% of the family income.
All anybody who really wanted to explore that would have to do is look at Pennsylvania, where there was a state ERA. There are now 22 states that have versions of state equal rights guarantees. Talk about the states as laboratories for public policy – not only is the laboratory out there, it’s done a lot of the work, and it’s pretty cleaned up even around a lot of these issues, [so] that we don’t have to [counter], “Oh, the ERA would mean abortion on demand, it would mean gay marriage, it would mean this or that.”
I manage a website called equalrightsamendment.org. There is an FAQ page on that website that addresses all of these issues and gives chapter and verse of how some of these issues have been dealt with in states, how so many of the accusations made against the ERA are false on their face. Others have a bit more subtlety to them. But nevertheless, there is no evidence in the states for what the opponents say that ERA would do. That’s political life, anyway.
You expect people to misrepresent, but when it happens so consistently with the same kinds of misrepresentations that happened with the women’s vote, etc,, you do start to say, “There’s something bigger going on here.” And the bigger thing is the worldview is going to be undermined. Their worldview.
There was a wonderful 1978, I believe, article in American Heritage magazine. I boiled it down to comparing the history of campaigning for the ERA and the 19th Amendment, so many parallels that it’s almost uncanny, one of which was that in suffrage, the historian who wrote this article said that there were women going out to state legislatures against the 19th Amendment, led by a woman attorney, and Phyllis Schlafly got her law degree after she got going on all of this political activism. So it is, again, tradition.
There will never be an absence of, in this case, women being active against advancements for women. There’s never a case where you don’t find some members of the oppressed class identifying with the dominant class, working for, speaking for [it]. Yet, then the politicians who are against it, say, “Women I know don’t want this.” Well, who do you know?
In 1998, we produced a 17-minute DVD video called The Equal Rights Amendment: Unfinished Business for the Constitution, and it’s a great educational tool. When I said that, it just flashed into my mind, there’s an image of a very well-padded Southern legislator saying, “Women in my district don’t want the ERA.” The Alice Paul Institute, which is in New Jersey and can be found online, has copies of that. If anyone is interested, it’s just $10, and it’s a super educational tool.
When I’m doing a program on the ERA, I’ll usually show that for 17 minutes, and then start out the conversation with, “Well, what did you see there that either took you back and made you say, ‘Oh, ugh’ or is this brand-new news to you?” It’s not a polemic at all. It’s an educational piece, and it’s very good. It ends up, you know it can’t be anything other than a nonprofit product because at the last scene, we got Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be in it, repeating what she had said in her confirmation hearings about the ERA, that it’s something that is very needed. So that’s just, again, to bring the Alice Paul Institute into it as well. The home page of www.equalrightsamendment.org has a link to it too. Not the whole link, but about five minutes of it, but then you could order through there.
Interviewer: This gets us back around to about 1977-ish. Things go “click” for you. What do you do next? How does your life, your action, your involvement start to pick up or change? And what does it do to you? What does it do to your family, your world?
RF: I just thought of the image my husband used when he was promoted. He worked for Bell Laboratories all his life, and when he had his first promotion to a supervisory level, and had to supervise other people instead of just being a little researcher in his office, he said he felt like a mail sack in an old movie on a little country siding, and without stopping the train rushes through with a hook and grabs him and goes pfsshhh. He felt like the mail sack.
That’s part of the feeling when that energy surges into you, that calling, I’ll say. You realize there’s a calling to work on equality, and in this case, equality specifically for women. You get to a place very quickly where you see so many possibilities for what you can do, so many inviting ones. At least somebody like me, who was home with the two kids. I loved that part of my life too. I’m not saying that was not good. It wasn’t something I had to negotiate with myself about, until the point when I had another something that was very important in my life.
And at that point, my daughter would have been eight and my son four. And even then, I did not have to do much massaging of my time. I’ve almost never been in paid employment working on the Equal Rights Amendment. I have done some consulting work, and because of work I had done after I had the “click,” I got involved through League of Women Voters. I was the local President at the time, and I ended up going on the state League board in the early ’80s.
I’m now realizing what I left out about the ratification. As I said, [it] got a lot of the ratifications, but then it slowed down because of the conservative opposition. There had been a seven-year deadline put on the ratification process, which would have expired March 22nd, 1979. As it got into 1978, we got some more over the succeeding years but had only 35 ratifications, and 38 were needed to put it in the Constitution. Feminist leaders, NOW (which was really leading the campaign, one arm of the campaign was NOW, President Eleanor Smeal and Alice Cohan, Ellie’s first Lieutenant or right-hand person), many people were involved in this, and they led an initiative to extend the deadline. It had never been done before.
Deadlines are not required by the amendment process as defined in the Constitution itself. The first amendment that ever had a deadline was in the 20th century. It was Prohibition, the 18th Amendment, and then Congress was debating, “Oh, well, we could put a deadline on it.” It was all because of liquor industry interests. They thought if they put the seven years on, it would kill it. Congresspeople (in that case Congressmen, there was one woman, Jeannette Rankin) could vote for it so they looked good with the “drys,” if you will, but they could still think it wasn’t going to go into the Constitution because they put a deadline on it. To their surprise, it passed almost as quickly as any other amendment ever had, but was ratified and then repealed by the 21st Amendment, but that’s another story. So, after the 19th Amendment, which had no deadline, every succeeding one had a seven-year deadline because Congress got into the habit of doing it. No one had ever tried to extend it, because they always passed well within the seven years, [were] ratified.
So NOW and other groups said, “We may not get three more states.” They saw what was happening politically with the conservative pendulum coming to knock everybody off their feet. They said, “Let’s go for an extension,” tried for another seven-year extension, ended up after a massive march in July of ’78 [that] Congress passed an extension from March 1979 to June 30th, 1982, not the seven years that were desired,. And so that gave a little more breathing space. But ’79, ’80, Reagan was elected, ’81, June 30th, 1982 came and there were still no more ratifications than 35.
So that deadline has passed. We are sitting here in 2014. There are 35 ratifications. Many would say the deadline passed, they go up in smoke. A number of people would say, and it’s based on good legal analysis, that it’s not that simple. There could be ways, either through Congress revisiting the deadline, which they already showed they thought they could do when they extended it … I won’t go into all the legalities, but the point is that there might well be a way to keep the 35 state ratifications legally viable, and therefore need only three more, and we’re calling it the three-state strategy.
So again, people can, if they’re interested, go on the website, equalrightsamendment.org, look under the strategy page, and some of that is explained, and there are links to some articles. So there’s been this second way of picking up with the ratification now.
There are two processes, [also] the traditional way of starting over, two-thirds of each house of Congress, three-quarters [of the states]. With the political cast of both Congress and state legislatures, it would be almost inconceivable to do that. But the sunny side of that is if the Equal Rights Amendment could be used as an organizing tool in all those states and at the Federal level, people, women and men, [could] use the ERA not as a litmus test kneejerk whatever, but as an indicator of where legislators are on the spectrum of “Do you support the worldview that’s equality and justice?” or “Do you support the worldview that’s hierarchical dominant?”
That’s a little too esoteric for a political campaign button, to put it that way, but that’s what it could be about. And if it’s about that, and given the demographics, and given that the younger generations are becoming more liberal, it would be very, very hard work, but it might be a way to start having that pendulum swing back in the other direction away from the conservative, “tea party,” I call them our modern-day know-nothing politicians.
Interviewer: Now might be a nice time to do it, to energize that kind of a movement around the ERA, because you can see how strident these conservative organizations or what they call the conservative grassroots are in terms of rolling back rights, access to care, etc., that women have had for a generation-and-a-half that’s gone by.
RF: Roe v Wade was ’73. Even the things that we do have now, legislation, which of course, can be overturned by another simple majority vote, … we have a lot of good legislation in place, not with complete enforcement still, Equal Pay Act and all of that sort of thing … it doesn’t take too much to overturn that, as it would to overturn or replace a constitutional amendment. It’s a little trickier. Most of those rights are under 14th Amendment, equal protection, etc., and in some cases, it is the actor who’s liable or has the burden of proof, if you will. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on the Equal Rights Amendment. I used to say the burden of proof was on the individual woman. I think it’s a little more subtle than that, but the point is absolutely well taken, which is, it requires initiative on the part of the one discriminated against.
The big difference, if we had an Equal Rights Amendment, from my understanding, would be, first of all, be very, very much a shot across the bow of people and corporations who would want to continue to discriminate. And governments, particularly because the ERA – its limitation, although I’ll take it as a great step forward – is that it prohibits state actions. Equality of rights under the law prohibits actions under the law to deny equality of rights, so it’s a necessary and yet probably not sufficient step forward.
But the point is that if that were in the Constitution, then it’s a real shot across the bow of corporations, governments who would want to pass the kinds of laws we’re seeing passed in states right now, which are about women’s health, saying that clinics who serve women for their reproductive health must have corridors [x] feet wide and this and this and this.
Interviewer: TRAP, frankly.
RF: TRAP, exactly. Well put. I forget what that stands for. [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers] Access to these facilities. I can’t imagine those would be [possible] to uphold if we had the federal Equal Rights Amendment, or even [in] some of the states where this is happening, I’m not sure that I’ve ever correlated those worst laws with, do they have a state ERA? But then you need someone to file a suit.
Interviewer: If you have an Equal Rights Amendment like that, and say a state wanted to institute those kinds of TRAP regulations, they would probably also have to apply to dentists’ offices, places that do vasectomies, any place where anybody cuts you, that might need to put a band-aid on you, would have to be to hospital standard or have access to a hospital, and it would put almost every private physician in the country out of business, and they would rise up and go, “You can’t.”
RF: You know, the thing about doctors who do abortions seems to be about admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Do they say that about physicians doing vasectomies? No. I don’t see how those even stand up now under a state ERA, but I know groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights are doing a dynamic job of litigating and asking for stays on some of these worst laws.
Interviewer: They’re fighting really hard. They’re fighting very hard in Virginia. We’re still going round and round about that down there.
RF: But again, it goes back to, doesn’t have to be all women that we put into office, but men and women with the right policies in mind that they want to support. I think it’s so critical that we look at how we deal with supporting the right candidates to get into these offices where they’re pushing the buttons to make the votes, … which gets into so many other things, including the way the 2010 census, which prompted the last redistricting in states, created such a horrible opportunity, I’ll editorialize, for Republicans. When you peel the layers of the onion off, it just makes you cry more and more – there’s a good poetic metaphor.
But the Republicans held more state houses and legislatures in 2010 because of the whole backlash after Obama was elected in 2008. It’s usually a bit of a rebound against the President who was elected two years earlier, anyway, but this goes back to pushing my racial justice button, so much of it is just a very thin mask for “I want to see this president fail.” Well, we know, it’s the old worldview, which doesn’t only keep women down, it keeps people of color down.
We know such things don’t [change] quickly. We know that the vast majority of the “mushy middle,” if you will, has to live with something for a while and then get used to it. To go back to the issue of LGBT rights and what’s happened, which I think is astonishing – again, as I say, “Hurray” – it’s an issue that’s not directly in line with the Equal Rights Amendment issue. It’s not disconnected from, but it’s not fully on the same track.
I’ll fill in a lacuna that I left when I talked about the history of it. The original wording about Women and men shall have equal rights was changed by Alice Paul, written by her in 1943 to say, Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. It no longer names women and men. It says you can’t abridge rights on account of sex. That models completely two other previous amendments: the 19th Amendment, the right to vote … shall not be denied on account of sex, which was modeled on the 15th Amendment, which said the right to vote shall not be denied on account of, didn’t use the word sex, but it said race, color, or previous condition of servitude, which was to grant the vote, to extend the voting rights to, … I don’t like to say “the vote was given” to anybody. They fought long and hard for it.
Interviewer: To extend the franchise.
RF: Exactly, to extend the franchise to the male freed victims of slavery. And so that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged language, sex, was taken from the 19th Amendment. The opponents said, “Oh, well, then of course, what that means is they’re saying sex means two people of the same sex can get married,” or this or this or this.
Interviewer: As opposed to biological sex.
RF: That’s right. Sex does mean your biology, yes. It can be your external appearance, your internal appearance, your hormones, your chromosomes, whatever. But sex is about biology. Some people, I think trying to be helpful, not trying to be subversive, said, “Well, if you just changed that word to gender, it would not feel so, whatever.” What I would contend is, if you’re really against – I’ll use “gay rights” as shorthand – if you’re against that, you don’t want the word gender in there because then you would be saying you can’t discriminate on the basis of gender, which has a much broader application [to] cultural presentation of sexuality, the way people behave relative to what biological sex they are at a given moment.
Talking about sexual identity, how they identify, what sex they identify as, what gender they present, and they don’t always go together. Hey, that’s life, too. It’s always been life. It’s just that we are much more, thank goodness, naming a reality, and the burden that fell on people who were not at the poles of male sex performing male gender and female sex performing female gender … everybody, how many people we had no idea, falling in between those poles have borne a horrible burden for over the centuries.
Interviewer: Just the insults, “sissy” and “tomboy” that kids used to throw at each other, tells you that if you blend, if you cross over a little bit, even in just the things you’re interested in doing in life, a girl who can throw a baseball properly – there are assumptions about your sexuality, about your gender, about your place in the world, your attitude about life that are really policing.
RF: Gender policing. Absolutely.
Interviewer: Putting the term “gender” in there gets you into a different kind of complication.
RF: But I find that very fascinating, too. I must admit, growing up as I did, [I] did not have the same gut reaction [as I did] against racial injustice. Not because I didn’t think there should be justice. It was never that I wasn’t for justice around sexuality, it was that it didn’t somehow push the same button internally that ERA and racial justice pushed for me.
But the more I have worked over the last couple decades, particularly – first of all, how happy I am that we’re moving forward on justice in that area, too, but also realizing that more than I knew, the discrimination around sexuality is an absolute essential for maintaining sex discrimination based on the old dyad of male/female. You can’t keep the male/female male dominance going nearly as well if you don’t actually know where everybody falls between those two poles. And if you don’t punish deviation.
Suzanne Pharr wrote a book called Homophobia, probably 15 or more years ago, which when I read that, I thought, “Oh, my goodness, yes. It’s all of a piece.” One of the things I find fascinating is how wonderfully quickly we’ve reached and perhaps passed the tipping point on same-sex marriage. Unexpectedly to me, because both with political and in a few cases in states’ court decisions, but also public opinion has been just amazing to me in the last, I’ll say 10 years, but quite amazing that it’s shifted so quickly. I don’t know how I would think that would help, but it certainly doesn’t hurt at all with the Equal Rights Amendment. Whether people getting used to the idea of breaking down these traditional constructs maybe helps with the ERA as we get more political traction, too.
Sonia Johnson, the ERA advocate from Virginia, when she was doing a lot of her work, and she wrote something, and I heard her say in speeches, too, that women are basically saying, “This is simple. Equality. Let’s just do it.” They’re told, “Well, just wait till we take care of this or that. Wait till we can take care of that war. Wait till we take care of that technological problem.” She said, “Women have always been told to wait. We’re going to be told to wait till the sun burns out.” The point is there will always be something that we’re being asked to get behind, take a place in line behind. We get very impatient, and we do our best, but somehow, we haven’t cracked it yet to make it happen.
This made me think of Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas–Hill hearings 1991. I kept calling that the big one on sexual harassment. I was so thrilled, and I said the ERA needs a big one like that, something to happen like that. It made a tremendous difference, and there was no going back to how we treated sexual harassment before it. But even that, I think the reverberations probably just always happen, but die down a bit. There’s the new movie Anita out, which somebody saw and said, “It’s fabulous,” which I really want to see, which may put some more impetus into dealing with that. But the reality is that all of the consciousness raising, the awareness that we got about sexual harassment and the new regulations, EEOC standards, etc., are just one example of all the many things we have to keep pushing on.