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On historic day, young feminists join effort to revive the ERA

But to these millennials, feminism doesn't automatically mean supporting a woman candidate for president.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The first people I saw when I entered the huge room in the Pennsylvania Convention Center hosting the DNC Women’s Caucus on Tuesday morning were three 20-somethings giving away familiar-looking buttons. Familiar, that is, if you came of age in the 1970s.

They were green, and round, and they said, “ERA YES.”

Dale Mezzacappa

Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? The 24-word sentence that says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Remember how it was passed by Congress in 1972 and later died, three states short of ratification?

Now, as Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket, there is a move to revive it, involving some of the same people who spearheaded its attempt at passage more than four decades ago. And they’ve enlisted a new contingent of young women who are concerned that their futures could be compromised without it.

“Women are listed nowhere in the Constitution. Nothing is protecting our rights from being revoked,” said Brooke Kendall, 21, a student at Wright State College in Ohio. “I think women are extremely underrepresented in government. … A lot of men are voting on issues that affect women and don’t affect them."

Kendall, perhaps without realizing it, was echoing Alice Paul, the women’s suffrage leader from Moorestown, New Jersey, who wrote the ERA in 1923 and spent the rest of her long life (she died in 1977) fighting for its passage. Paul said: “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”

Liz Griesmer, 21, cited several issues of concern to young women today: paid family leave, reproductive rights, economic justice (as in equal pay for equal work), ending violence against women, and affordable college.

Griesmer, who is from Westfield, New Jersey, pointed out that she had never heard of the ERA until she took an Advanced Placement U.S. history class.

"Women are left out of history," said Kendall.

Grace Duginski, 21, of Minnesota, remembers knowing nothing about the feminist movement before coming across her mother’s ’70s-era books, such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, and asking about them.

It was during this “second wave” of feminism in the 1970s that women became more politically assertive, more professions opened up to them, and they entered the workforce in droves.

The ERA passed both houses of Congress in 1972 – after five decades of being introduced in every session – with a seven-year deadline to get approval from 38 states. It sailed through 22 states in a year.

Then the backlash set in. Only 35 states ratified it, even with a three-year extension to 1982.

The ERA’s demise coincided with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly, who presented some of the same arguments that were used in an effort to derail suffrage a half-century before – that women would lose the right to be supported by their husbands, for instance. As the culture wars were gearing up, opponents also raised the specter of women in combat, widespread abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Since ratification stalled, it is still being introduced in every session of Congress. And rather than go back to the beginning, the campaign to revive it is checking out the constitutionality and precedent for the position that the 35 states that already ratified it can still be counted and that it only needs to pass three more states now to become law.

So, how important is electing a woman to the presidency to these young women? And to possible passage of the ERA? They all said that their idea of feminism doesn’t necessarily require supporting a female candidate, while agreeing that a woman president would be an enormous step forward.

“As a millennial, I’m not so much in for symbolism,” Griesmer said, “but I really believe Hillary Clinton will preserve our rights as women.”

Kendall said she was “pro-Bernie for a long time.” But, she added, “That doesn’t negate the importance of Hillary rising.”

“I would consider ourselves the third wave of feminism,” said Griesmer, who attends Vassar, founded in 1861 as the nation’s first full-fledged college for women (it has been co-ed since 1969). The college was also an incubator a century ago for several of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement with Paul (who went to Swarthmore).

“The difference now from second-wave feminism [of the ‘60s and ‘70s] is that we include all women, women of color and trans women, which was a problem in the past, and we are emphasizing more of the economic piece of the agenda, like why so many women are poor.”

As we were talking, up walked the redoubtable Eleanor Smeal, the one-time Pittsburgh housewife who rose to lead the National Organization for Women two different times during the 1970s and 1980s, when NOW was heavily involved in Democratic politics. Smeal now heads the Feminist Majority Foundation, where the young women are interns. The foundation is one of the leaders in the ERA revival effort.

Smeal – and most of the speakers at the Women’s Caucus event – attached more importance to the symbolism of Clinton’s cracking this highest of glass ceilings – nomination to the presidency – than the younger women did.

“This is historic, a breakthrough,” Smeal said, hours before Clinton was officially nominated at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. “Hillary is a beacon for the women of the world. … And it’s not just that Hillary is a woman, but that she’s a feminist. If she wins the presidency, women all over will say, ‘we can lead.’ She will enhance the role of women everywhere by providing a role model like no other.”

Smeal is a veteran of bruising battles over the decades to promote women’s candidacy for office and to increase their numbers in positions of power.

NOW was influential in the choice of U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential pick in 1984, the first time a woman was on a major party’s national ticket.

In 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado made a stab at running for president, egged on by NOW under Smeal.

Schroeder’s campaign fizzled early on, but it was one step in a long list of ceiling-cracking efforts by women that led to Tuesday night’s history-making moment.

At the Women’s Caucus meeting, new interim DNC chair Donna Brazile offered a fiery litany of “foremothers,” going all the way back to Abigail Adams, who wrote to her husband John 240 years ago: “Remember the ladies.”

Brazile mentioned, among others, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Eleanor Roosevelt, U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, who ran for president in 1972.

Brazile was among several prominent Democratic women who spoke at the caucus meeting, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, all invoking the past and highlighting this as an important moment for the future, for their daughters, granddaughters – and sons and grandsons –to see women in positions of power, without limits to their potential.

Brazile said that at the 1976 DNC, she heard Jordan become the first African American woman to keynote a major party convention.

Her words made an impression on the 16-year- old Brazile, who decided then and there to become a politically active Democrat. Now, 40 years later, eight years after electing the first Black president, Brazile predicted, “We are going to elect our first female president of the United States.”

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