When Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, both the state of women’s rights in America and the women’s rights movement looked very different than they do today. The ERA was proposed at a time when women could not open their own bank accounts, obtain a mortgage, could not serve on juries, and did not have the right to use contraception, among many other restrictions. Women were clearly second-class citizens. In the 100 years since women have gained a significant number of rights but continue to face numerous hurdles to gaining full equality. Although the ERA has been passed by Congress and ratified by the necessary 38 states, the amendment has not been added to the U.S. Constitution.
However, during a recent ERA Centennial Convention I attended, it was clear that advocates have not given up on the movement to place the Amendment in the Constitution. Additionally, it was evident that the new movement for the Equal Rights Amendment is being led by a more diverse coalition of people of different ages, races, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds than ever before. Even the text of the ERA itself has changed from the 1923 version which read “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction” but was revised in 1943 for the current language to state “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 ERA Centennial Convention was an event focused on commemorating the 100th anniversary and cultivating the next generation of ERA activists. As a young student, I would not have been able to attend the 1923 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and contribute to discussions about how to make the Equal Rights Amendment as inclusive and equitable as possible. However, I was able to attend the 2023 ERA Centennial Convention in Seneca Falls due to the generosity of Generation Ratify, the young people’s movement to finalize the Equal Rights Amendment, who committed to making travel, housing, and tickets to the convention completely free for people under 25. Following a Capitol Hill press conference featuring Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Don Beyer, and other members of Congress, I boarded a bus with NOW intern Bell Pastore and with activists from various chapters of NOW, Generation Ratify, and congressional interns, and we drove over six hours to Seneca Falls. Once we arrived, I and dozens of other young activists then spent our nights sleeping in the historic church where, in 1923, Alice Paul first read the text of the original Equal Rights Amendment.
For the rest of the evening, I got to know the other young people who had made the trek to Seneca Falls to show their support for the Equal Rights Amendment. The other attendees came from all over the country with some taking flights from the West Coast, some carpooling with other young people, and some riding in a purple RV that said, “The Notorious RVG.” Getting to befriend and hear the stories of these other young people and why the ERA was important to them was incredibly inspiring to me. Although we were all part of the younger generation of feminists, everyone came from a different background with a unique set of experiences that informed their activism, making for a diverse display of the breadth of reasons why the ERA is still important 100 years after it was authored. Despite the different backgrounds we all came from, one thing most of us had in common is that we were students either in high school or college. Being able to hear from other student activists about what they study and how they engage their campuses in feminist activism was greatly enjoyable for me as someone who is currently considering attending grad school in a program that focuses on women’s rights.
In addition to getting to know each other, we worked on a variety of creative projects to prepare for the convention and activism actions that would follow. We made a variety of posters and collaborated on friendship bracelets with various pro-ERA messages. In addition, we assembled zines with information regarding what the ERA is and what the reader can do to support the 28th Amendment. These would be given out at a protest at the National Archives following the convention to ensure that people who did not attend the convention were able to get information regarding how they can join the pro-ERA movement.
Throughout the weekend we heard from incredibly impressive feminist activists of all generations who told stories from their histories of fighting for the ERA and how they planned to continue the fight in the future. We heard from Nevada State Senator Rev. Dr. Pat Spearman who was instrumental in ratifying the ERA in Nevada as well as from Rep. Cori Bush who launched the Congressional ERA Caucus alongside Rep. Ayanna Pressley to affirm the ERA as the 28th amendment. We also heard from Christian F. Nunes, the president of NOW about the need to make the fight for the ERA an intersectional movement and we heard from Rosie Couture, the executive director of Generation Ratify, regarding the importance of creating a youth-led movement for the ERA to ensure its longevity. Lastly, it was an honor to hear from former NOW president and co-founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Ellie Smeal, about her decades-long advocacy for the ERA which involved passing the three-year extension for states to ratify the ERA and managing a national campaign to gain ratification in the three final states needed to put the amendment in the Constitution.
It is important that our activism for the Equal Rights Amendment does not stop now that we have left Seneca Falls. We must follow in the footsteps of the activists who came before us by continuing to engage in meaningful activism. After all, a sentiment echoed throughout the convention is that we should be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the movement for the ERA by ending it. As a result, we spent the final hours of the convention giving recommendations about how to use the knowledge and connections we had gained during the convention to continue advocating for the ERA after the convention was over. I personally took part in Generation Ratify’s six-hour blockade of Constitution Avenue in front of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and spent two days lobbying in Congress in support of a variety of pro-ERA bills. In the future, I plan to set up an event at my university with our campus chapter of NOW to raise awareness for the ERA and show students ways they can use their voices to support the certification and publication of the Equal Rights Amendment so that we do not have to wait another 100 years for constitutional equality.
By Brigid Rawdon, NOW Government Relations Intern