Wisconsin’s Struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment

by Midge Leeper Miller, Representative to the Wisconsin Assembly 1971 - 1985

“Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”(U.S.-never passed) “Equality of rights or equal protection under the law shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of sex.” (WI-never passed)

The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced into Congress in 1923 as a next step for women’s rights following the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment granting voting rights—suffrage— to women. It was introduced every subsequent year at the insistence of The National Women’s Party, led by a young woman named Alice Paul, but, after rancorous debate, was always defeated.

In the early 1970s, with the new surge of feminism, there was talk of the ERA across the country. While Congress was still debating it, feminists were successful in getting a number of states to pass their own versions of the ERA. At the suggestion of Virginia Allen, a prominent leader in the national Republican Party, and with the urging of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Wisconsin, I agreed to introduce a Wisconsin state ERA. It gained “first passage” in February 1972. (Constitutional amendments in Wisconsin require passage in two successive sessions of the Legislature and subsequent passage by statewide referendum.)

We also passed a resolution calling for a Legislative Council bi-partisan study committee to recommend how to implement the ERA once it became law. Even though some opponents of ERA were on the committee, things went rather smoothly because it was assumed that ERA would soon be the law and our only job was to recommend how to implement it.

Then on March 22, 1972 Congress finally passed the federal ERA and submitted it to the states for ratification. (Ratification requires legislative support in 2/3 of the states.) On April 20, 1972 Wisconsin became the 14th or 15th state to ratify the federal ERA. Most states were ratifying as quickly as possible. For us, it was easy because we had already had our discussions when we approved the first state passage.

In Wisconsin supporters were ready to introduce the Wisconsin ERA for second passage. However, in the interim, Phyllis Schlafly and other ultra-conservatives had begun creating a backlash by claiming all sorts of dire consequences if an ERA were to pass. We had a difficult decision to make: we could put it on the spring ballot, which would not give much time to promote it, or we could wait for the fall ballot, which would give the growing anti-ERA forces more time to fight it. Because the state ERAs had been winning by overwhelming numbers even in more conservative states, we decided to go for the earlier date in hopes we could preempt a protracted battle with the anti-ERA forces.

We miscalculated. In February 1973 the Wisconsin ERA gained second passage in the Legislature but it was defeated at the polls on April 3, 1973. It was the first defeat of a state ERA in the country.

Luckily, we had already ratified the federal ERA. Luckily, we had not yet passed the implementation bill that had come out of committee. (I cannot recall whether that bill was defeated in the legislature or whether we decided not even to submit it because of the failure at the polls.) I say “luckily” it wasn’t passed because in the next session I introduced a bill with most of the committee’s recommendations but without the parts that I felt needed to be handled in separate legislation. The bill passed. Its most important changes were: (1) elimination off all parts on rape and sexual violence, which parts Senator Bill Bablitch then greatly improved and which passed; and (2) all parts on child and spousal support and property in marriage, which Representative Mary Lou Munts pursued and which became Wisconsin’s Marital Property law.

As for the federal ERA, unfortunately Congress had passed it with a seven-year time limit for ratification, and it was being held up by a very few state legislators who happened to be in crucial positions either as Speakers or Committee Chairs in enough states to block final ratification. Congress even granted a three-year extension, but the ERA was never fully ratified, and it was lost despite being overwhelmingly supported by the American people and most elected officials.

What happened after that is harder to interpret. Many who actually opposed the ERA had said they truly supported equality but just feared the unanticipated ramifications of a Constitutional provision: perhaps they really meant it. Whatever the reason, the women’s movement went on to achieve passage of many important pieces of legislation that brought equality to both sexes and corrected many of the most grievous discriminations. Actually some of the problems that had worried opponents, such as women in the military have also come about anyway.

Perhaps we feminists have been weakened more by our successes than by our failures. Many women who are too young to remember those battles now take for granted their improved position. I was like that at one time. I never really talked to my mother about women getting the vote even though she had the interesting experience of being elected County Superintendent of Schools in 1911—nine years before the suffrage guarentee was passed. I grew up thinking we were born with voting rights and not even realizing my own mother was a pioneer.

Of course, since we are a constitutional democracy, I think we made a great mistake to let that constitutional declaration of equality slip through our fingers. The 1970s were a good time to be in government, and we did a lot to move women towards equality and to make their lives better. Women have continued to be elected in increasing numbers and have moved into many positions previously held only by men.

I wish we could have also sealed our equality in the Constitution. However, I think we will have to wait for some new awareness and for a new wave of feminism to finish the task. Or perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse an earlier ruling and decide that the 14th amendment really does intend to include women.