Clipped From Detroit Free Press
I , I U. JL ! if-: if-: if-: V : t As women's suffrage succeeded, so will the ERA the next time ! By AMY SABRIN Kniuht-Ridder Kniuht-Ridder Kniuht-Ridder Newspapers EQUALITY is what pollsters call a "motherhood "motherhood issue," as in "God, motherhood and apple pie." Who can admit to being opposed to equality for all? But the Equal Rights Amendment? Amendment? That's a different issue entirely. When pollsters ask Americans if they favor of-oppose of-oppose of-oppose guaranteeing equal rights under the law for men and women, an overwhelming .majority 71 percent, according to an AP-NBC AP-NBC AP-NBC News poll favor equal rights. But when the question is rephrased, "Do you favor or oppose the Equal Rights Amendment?" support drops to 51 percent. Let's face it: The ERA has an image problem. The deadline for ratification is June 30, and barring a major miracle, 59 years of effort will end in defeat. That defeat will be largely attributable to the ERA's failure to become, literally and figuratively, a "motherhood issue." issue." The amendment's supporters have failed to appeal to women who, whether they work or not, focus their lives on home and family. What went wrong? The ERA was born in 1923, a stepchild of the suffrage movement. It had taken American women 72 years of official campaigning to win the vote. By those standards, the ERA has some time yet to go. But ERA supporters can learn more than patience from the suffrage movement. movement. Those who wonder where the ERA went wrong may benefit from examining how suffrage suffrage went right. ' "To men, it is only a side issue," said Susan B. Anthony of women's suffrage. She could say the same today of the ERA. However, she realized that it was not the indifference of men but the apathy or outright hostility of women thai was most crushing to the cause of women's rights. Anthony and other suffragists found it almost impossible to win over indifferent male lawmakers when there were women giving speeches entitled, "Why Should Suffrage be Imposed on Women?" As historian Carl Degler notes, women are alone in the annals of American history in their organized opposition to the expansion of their own civil rights. One cannot imagine, for example, a substantial, organized group of blacks opposing the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act. Yet a sizable and vociferous number of women did oppose suffrage and do. oppose the ERA. THE EXISTENCE of this opposition allows the opponents to control the debate over the ERA, by putting the burden of proof of the need for the amendment on its supporters. "How can it be a clear question of right or wrong," bewildered male lawmakers ask, "if a lot of women don't want it?" A similar objection "Women don't want the vote!" was raised to suffrage, and there was a lot of evidence to support that objection. In the few states where women could vote in local elections, female turnout was embarrassingly embarrassingly low. In 1895, Massachusetts permitted women to vote on the suffrage issue itself. Only five percent of the eligible women bothered to cast ballots. It is difficult for most 20th Century Americans Americans to understand this hesitancy to vote, but in its time the idea of extending the vote to women was understood by both supporters and opponents opponents as a radical move. By voting as individuals rather than letting their husbands' votes represent represent them, "Women are brought into direct relation with the state . . . independent of their 'mate' or 'brood,' " stated 19th Century physician physician and suffragist Mary Putnam Jacobi. As an opponent put it, suffrage "brought the possibility possibility of civil war . . . to the door of every family." The debate over suffrage became the dividing dividing line for where one stood on "the woman question," as 19th Century Americans referred to the whole morass of issues surrounding the changing role of women in an urbanizing, industrializing society. Just as suffrage became the front line of that battle 100 years ago, the ERA is where the battle lines are drawn today. A change of strategy Consciously or unconsciously, suffrage leaders leaders understood they had to retreat from the front lines of that battle if they were ever to get suffrage passed. How they did so could be a vital lesson for proponents of the ERA. Around the turn of the century, the suffragists' suffragists' rhetoric changed. Instead of emphasizing the liberating effects voting would have on women, they began to talk about how women could use the vote to protect their homes and children. The National American Woman Suffrage Suffrage Association (NAWSA) began distributing pamphlets explaining how women could use the vote to vin laws to regulate the sale of food, set safe building codes and improve public health and sanitation. "WOMEN ARE, by nature and training, housekeepers. Let them have a hand in the city's housekeeping," the pamphlets concluded. The new pitch for suffrage was clear: The vote was quite literally an extension of woman's domestic domestic role. This new approach converted many large, traditional women's groups to the suffrage cause, including the politically influential Women's Christian Temperance Union. At the same time, it alienated the more radical women in the movement, who believed the domestic role was the very source of women's oppression. oppression. The movement split between the moderate NAWSA and the militant National Woman's Party (NWP). Although the leaders regretted this split at the time, history shows it actually may have helped the cause. The split allowed women who differed on many issues, but who agreed on suffrage, to find their own niche in the movement. It allowed suffrage to develop a mass base of support. It made it possible for pivotal male lawmakers to endorse suffrage without having to embrace its more radical elements. Furthermore, Furthermore, while the militant NWP concentrated on developing an ideology and raising women's consciousness, the moderate NAWSA focused on painstaking local political organization. THE IMPLICATIONS for the Equal Rights Amendment are these: The best way to develop a mass base of support for the ERA may be, ironically, to let the movement splinter. The history of suffrage teaches that two divergent groups can add renewed vigor to a dying movement. A radical, pro-ERA pro-ERA pro-ERA group could engender national publicity publicity through continued protest, while a moderate wing could work on district-level district-level district-level political organization, a necessity if the ERA is to make it through Congress and the state legislatures again. A militant wing could continue to point out the inequities women face in the United States, while the moderate group could shift its rhetoric to appeal to women who invest most of their emotional resources in their families. Women who say, "I'm for the E and the R but not the A," must be shown that the amendment is not a threat to their economic or emotional well-being. well-being. well-being. Many of these women feel the feminist movement in general and the ERA in particular are criticisms of the way they have chosen to live their lives. Opponents of the amendment have argued strenuously that the ERA is anti-family, anti-family, anti-family, anti-motherhood. anti-motherhood. anti-motherhood. If the ERA is ever to become part of the Constitution, its supporters must begin to counter this image and reach these women. Like their suffrage foremothers, ERA leaders leaders recently recognized the need to change their pitch. In the past few years, they desperately began to argue that the ERA would help wives and mothers. For example, the ERA would correct flaws in tax, divorce and Social Security laws that now penalize married women. But these arguments came too late to save the ERA this time. The struggle continues The mere thought that there has to be a next time for the ERA is unspeakably depressing to those involved in the cause. The amount of time, talent and money committed by women to the campaigns for suffrage and equal rights over the last 150 years is staggering. A frustrated Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization Organization for Women, recently wondered how many other things women could be accomplishing accomplishing if they did not always have to devote their energies to the struggle for equal rights. Years after the suffrage amendment was ratified, Carrie Chapman Catt, the last president president of NAWSA, recalled the incredible amount of work that went into that effort. She noted that American women "were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referanda to male voters, 480 campaigns to urge legislatures to submit suffrage suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to induce state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to persuade state party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses to get the federal amendment submitted submitted and ratified." But, as Catt added, "One important reason why the struggle took so long and was so difficult was that most women were either hostile or apathetic." Unless leaders of the modern women's movement learn to deal with those hostile and apathetic women, the struggle . for the ERA is doomed to be even longer than the struggle for the vote.