The Rise and Fall of the Equal Rights Amendment

Graham Noble explains why the issue of equal gender rights has been so controversial in the history of the United States.

Alice Paul, September 1920When Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), proposed in 1921 that ‘Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States’, she initiated a constitutional struggle that continues to this day. The so-called ‘Lucretia Mott Amendment’ was unanimously adopted by the party’s convention at Seneca Falls, New York. After nearly half a century of determined campaigning, the reworded Equal Rights Amendment was finally approved by Congress in 1972, but it narrowly failed, over the next ten years, to achieve constitutional ratification by the required number of state legislatures. Its legal status unclear and its relevance to the modern world fiercely disputed, the proposed amendment languishes still on the backburner of American civil rights politics.

Origins of the ERA

Alice Paul had first encountered the subject of female civil rights when she came to England before the First World War. She met the suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst, and involved herself in the British campaign for women’s right to vote. Like many others, she suffered arrest, imprisonment, and force-feeding whilst on hunger strike. Returning home, she challenged President Woodrow Wilson to back the American female suffrage amendment and was amongst those attacked by an angry mob when standing as a ‘silent sentinel’ outside the White House.

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