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Learning from Failures Present and Past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2022

Margery L. Elfin*
Hood College


The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is not the first failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to make the political power of women more equal to that of men. Nor was the first failure connected with the so-called Women's Suffrage Amendment which was ratified in 1920. Rather, it occurred 50 years and four successful amendments earlier. Despite the determined efforts of a small group of women, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right of all male citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” but left out women altogether.

It would be foolhardy to draw neat parallels between the experiences of activist women at two times as different as 1870 and the present. Nonetheless, it can be an instructive exercise.

Americans have always been suspicious of elites, and criticism leveled at the leadership of the ERA reflects that attitude. It would be unlikely, however, for a mass movement to be the propelling force behind a constitutional amendment. Looking back at the struggle over the Fifteenth Amendment, we see that a small band of educated, upper-middle-class women fought for the inclusion of women. That those women were perceived as an elite does seem to have hurt their cause. Similarly, the ERA's chances may have been damaged by a perception that its chief proponents were not typical American women.

Yet, the political culture of the time is clearly of greatest importance in determining an amendment's passage. In 1870 the barriers to acceptance of women as leaders were so great that even communicating their views was no easy task for the early suffragettes. The culture was resistant to women “speaking out.”

The Equal Rights Amendment: Anatomy of a Failure
Copyright © The American Political Science Association 1982

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1 Boles, Janet K., “Systemic Factors Underlying Legislative Responses to Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment,” Women & Politics 2 (Spring/Summer 1982): 520 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Young, Louise M., “Women's Place in American Politics: The Historical Perspective,” Journal of Politics 38 (August 1976): 325 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.