The Equal Rights Amendment: Labor’s Fight for True Gender Equality

Today we are celebrating National Women’s Equality Day! Gender equality in the workplace is a social justice issue that the labor movement has always been involved in.  In the spirit of this holiday, we will be highlighting some of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) items that will be featured in the Labor History Collections’ exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America”!

Equal Rights Flyer

This flyer is part of the “Breaking the Gender Barrier: A Woman’s Place is in Her Union” display! The march was organized by the National Women’s Party, League of Women Voters, Business & Professional Women, and the National Organization for Women in honor of Alice Paul. They planned on marching to the White House to present a proclamation to President Carter to call for the ratification of the ERA. AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department, Records, 1946-2000.

The ERA was written and introduced to Congress by Alice Paul, leader of the National Women’s Party, in 1923. This amendment was short in length, three sections with one sentence each. The amendment called for equal rights regardless of sex, and gave the federal government the power to enforce this notion with “appropriate” legislation. During the 1920s into the 1960s, the majority of women labor groups were highly against the ERA. The groups stated that the ERA was a false promise of equality and would threaten already established legislation for women workers.

ERA Button

“ERA Yes” button, which will also be on display in our labor exhibit! This slogan was used in many marches in support of the amendment, circa 1970s. AFL-CIO Artifact Collection.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supported the shared belief that the ERA would do more harm than good. On May 7, 1970 the Director of the AFL-CIO Department of Legislation, Andrew J. Biemiller, made a statement to the Constitutional Amendment Subcommittee:

“The Equal Rights Amendment, on the other hand, permits of no negotiation or compromise, no matter what the circumstances. It would simply become unconstitutional for any law to distinguish in its application between men and women. It makes no guarantee of extension of labor law protections to men. Enemies of labor legislation powered by a combination of middle-class feminists and employers, could speedily wipe out all forms of protections afforded specifically to women whether “restrictive” or not – minimum wage laws, rest periods, meal periods, seating requirements, transportation at night, and other provisions.”

In 1973, the AFL-CIO decided to switch their opinion of the ERA and announced their endorsement of it. Because of this significant support, the extension of the ratification process was approved. ERA legislation is still being presented to Congress for ratification and to remove the time limit of the ratification process.

Labor_ExhibitPoster_ERA YES

One of the many photos that make up the background of the exhibit poster! The poster showcases the woman that is holding up the banner “ERA Yes” during a demonstration for janitors workers’ rights. Page One Photography Incorporated Collection.

True gender equality is still an issue that the labor movement is fighting for even though there is legislation that should address the issues, such as the Equal Pay Act and Title VII in the Civil Rights Act. Both of these policies should have eliminated gender discrimination. It brings up the questions: Is legal justice the same as social justice? Do you need both to make change? If there is legal justice for gender equality then what else is necessary to bring real change?

If you would like to know more on the Equal Rights Amendment, check out the labor exhibit or email us at askhornbake@umd.edu.

RSVP here to attend the grand opening of the exhibit on October 6th!


Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archival and Digital Curation

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