The ERA could finally become a reality. Here’s a look back at Michigan women’s fight for equality.

By: - December 30, 2019 6:28 am

A woman hold up a sign as members of Congress and representatives of women’s groups hold a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) outside the U.S. Capitol March 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Laura Carter Callow has been on the front lines for the Equal Rights Amendment’s (ERA) advancement in Michigan since the mid-1970s and now she is looking forward to 2020.

“I believe that this is a matter of civil justice that is long overdue,” said Carter Callow, a 92-year-old women’s rights activist and retired art teacher who lives in Canton.

Laura Carter Callow | Ken Coleman photo

What is significant about 2020?

Following a historic Virginia state election where Democrats scored majorities in the state House and Senate, a vote to ratify the ERA could make the commonwealth the pivotal 38th state to do so. And if that happens, it would likely set up an intensified national debate on the subject that may reach the U.S. Supreme Court for final resolution.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” said Kate Kelly, an attorney with Equality Now, an organization that supports ERA and its ratification. “I feel very confident because the [Virginia] Senate has been passed it six times before and new House is committed to it.”

Kelly predicts that Virginia ratification will happen in January. However, as expected, a federal lawsuit was filed on Dec. 17 on behalf of three states: Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota. They argue that the deadline for ratification expired in 1982. 

How did we get here?

After the women’s suffrage movement that culminated in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment giving American women the right to vote, the ERA’s origin dates back to 1923. 

Rep. Martha Griffiths in 1970 | Wikimedia Commons

The original legislation was drafted by women’s suffragist Alice Paul. It was designed to ban discrimination on account of sex. In 1950 and 1953, the U.S. Senate passed ERA resolutions, but the House did not affirm them. In 1970, the effort received a boost. U.S. Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Detroit) introduced a bill just as seminal civil rights legislation had been signed into law and the women’s rights movement was gaining national attention.   

“This amendment has been in the Judiciary [Committee] since 1923,” Griffith said of the amendment in 1970. “Two generations and seven years is long enough for any committee to act.”

Congress gave the effort 10 years to achieve ratification by at least 38 states or two-thirds of the nation. By 1982, 35 states, including Michigan, supported the ERA. However, the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution expired without ratification.

By the early 1990s, ERA many supporters adopted a “three-state strategy,” which was designed to organize and push for three more states to ratify and thus meet the threshold. 

The argument is tied to ratification of the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, which is also referred to as the “Madison Amendment” that was adopted in 1992. The measure, which dealt with congressional pay raises and not the ERA, became part of the Constitution had been pending before state legislatures since 1789 before achieving the necessary three-quarters ratification. 

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Carter Callow and others argue that the Madison Amendment had a 203-year ratification period and no time limit. ERA advocates like the Canton resident have continually pushed for ratification.

The issue has gained steam on Capitol Hill in recent years. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) re-introduced ERA legislation in 2005. Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA in 2017 and Illinois became the 37th state in 2018.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) claps during a press conference after a vote on healthcare on Capitol Hill November 7, 2009 in Washington, DC. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

“The fact that it is not yet part of the United States Constitution is indefensible,” Dingell said at the time. “For the sake of our daughters and granddaughters, it’s time we correct this situation.”

Earlier this year, the Virginia state Senate voted to approve the amendment, but it failed by one vote in the House of Delegates. 

But Democrats won majorities in both chambers in November. It is the first time that Democrats will control state government in Virginia in more than 20 years. Incoming House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, has pledged to bring the ERA measure up during the next session, which starts next month.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives last month adopted a resolution to make way for a constitutional amendment. With that said, there remains debate  as to whether Capitol Hill lawmakers can proceed with the effort to place ERA as a constitutional because of the time limit issue, now the subject of a lawsuit.

“There is no time limit on equality, and it’s beyond time for women and men to be recognized and protected as equals under the law,” said U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, (D-Va.) said in November. “Especially as we’re seeing growing momentum on this issue back in Virginia, we are now laying the groundwork to hit the federal threshold for the long-overdue ratification.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol September 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

But the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), said Congress does “not have the constitutional authority to retroactively revise a failed constitutional amendment.”

ERA in Michigan

During the early 1970s, Republican women like Helen Milliken, wife of then-Michigan Gov. William Milliken, was a noted supporter. Helen Milliken told the Detroit Free Press, “Our party, the party of Lincoln, the party of human rights, has been the party that has turned its back on women.”

On April 19, 1972, Gov. Milliken signed into a law a measure that would grant women equal access to public accommodations. 

But the national ERA movement also had powerful Michigan detractors who happened to be women. Myra Wolfgang, a leading labor leader, and Elaine Donnelly, a Livonia Republican activist and Michigan chair of the National STOP ERA Committee and later special projects director for ultra-conservative Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, were among them.

“There is nothing to be gained by petulant intimidation of the male population,” Donnelly wrote during the 1970s. “Intelligent evaluation of the most important issues affecting women today world make more sense.”

The governor-appointed state Women’s Commission also opposed ERA legislation citing concern that it could strip women of labor law protections. However, the Michigan Department of Labor voiced support for the ERA.   

Martha Griffiths, who would later become Michigan’s first female lieutenant governor under Democrat James Blanchard in 1983, sponsored her legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 — and it was almost successful. 

Buoyed by Virginia’s blue wave, Congress renews push for Equal Rights Amendment 

Wolfgang, the first woman to serve as vice president of the 480,000-member Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, testified for more than two hours before a U.S. Senate committee in 1970 against the ERA. Defending state laws limiting the hours women could work and the weight that they could lift, Wolfgang said, “We don’t want equality of mistreatment.” 

On Aug.10, 1970, Griffith’s measure sailed through the U.S. House by a 346-15 although two of her Michigan Democratic colleagues, U.S. Reps. Lucien Nedzi and John Dingell, voted against it. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, the Grand Rapids Republican who would become president, supported the measure.

U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Dingell and Nedzi believed that the legislation would hurt present laws protecting women from harsh working conditions and would negatively affect them in other areas such as the military draft, Social Security and child custody. Dingell said he felt the amendment would help working women “who need it least” and not housewives “who need help the most.” 

He pointed out to the Detroit Free Press at the time that his then-wife, Helen Henebry, and his female staff “without exception thought that I had done exactly right.”  

Fifty years have passed. Dingell, who died in February, has been succeeded in Congress by his second wife, now-U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) — one of the ERA’s staunchest supporters.

Debbie Dingell told the Advance that she and former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) were catalysts for John Dingell changing his mind on the issue during the 1980s. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell | Andrew Roth

“He was worried about women who would lose benefits like alimony,” Debbie Dingell recalled.

The Griffith legislation was amended in the U.S. Senate, adding the clause that women would be exempt from the military, but it failed to achieve concurrence in the House before the session ended. 

In the following session, however, the ERA was overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 1972 by a 354-24 in the House on Oct. 12, 1971, and 84-8 in the Senate on March 22, 1972. The legislation was sent to the states for ratification. It also enjoyed the support of then-President Richard Nixon, a Republican. 

Nedzi voted no. Dingell and Ford were among the 51 House members who were recorded as not voting. The Capitol Hill debate centered on the issue of including provisions that would continue the drafting men into the military, but not women, and provisions asserting the validity of many existing laws that treat men and women differently. Ultimately, the language was not included in the legislation.

On May 18, 1972, the Michigan House of Representatives approved the ERA by a 90-19 vote. Six women were members of the chamber at the time. 

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Rosetta Ferguson, a Detroit Democrat, had rallied against the measure but was absent on the day of final passage. During a prior debate, Ferguson declared: “God made man and put him over all things that are — and that includes woman. We just love being women and Lord knows, we love men.”

State Reps. Josephine Hunsinger (D-Detroit) and Joyce Symons (D-Allen Park) voted against the House resolution. The Senate, however, approved the measure by voice vote four days later, making Michigan the nation’s 18 state to ratify ERA.

However, state Sen. Alvin DeGrow (R-Pigeon) was prepared to vote no and “accurately reflected” his female constituents.  

“My wife told me to vote against this,” DeGrow said. “She said she didn’t want to come down to equal status with men.”

The resolution read in part: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Time limit 

The fight for the ERA continued as Michigan native Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency. His wife, Betty Ford, was a staunch supporter.

First Lady Betty Ford sports a button expressing her support for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. 1975 | Karl Schumacher, Wikimedia Commons

Laura Carter Callow, who Helen Milliken once called the Susan B. Anthony of Michigan, helped to co-found Michigan’s chapter of ERAmerica, a national organization formed in 1976 dedicated to securing and protecting state ratification. 

She doesn’t believe that Congress can legally impose a time limit on the ERA’s ratification and cites precedent in a case called Coleman v. Miller. She expects that the matter ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 1939 Coleman v. Miller case, the high court ruled that Congress could judge whether an amendment had been ratified in a sufficiently timely fashion when presented with ratifications by three-fourths of the states. Furthermore, Carter Callow argues that “a time limit by Congress is a power grab and a take-away of states’ rights.”

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to remove the deadline from the preamble of the original constitutional amendment. 

Earlier this year, she tweeted: “We’ve been talking about #ERANow for 47 years, the time to pass this amendment and get it added to the Constitution is now!”

Her measure is co-sponsored by more than 200 lawmakers, including Debbie Dingell and all six other Michigan Democrats. Last month, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee passed it.

“Today @HouseJudiciary advanced legislation to help ratify the Equal Rights Amendment! Michigan passed it in 1972 under a Republican Governor. Haven’t we waited long enough for equal protection under the law for all women?” Dingell wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a Senate resolution that would eliminate the time limit that has 33 co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).

Maloney reintroduced in January her ERA resolution that would relaunch the 38-state ratification process. It has more than 100 co-sponsors, including all seven Michigan Democrats. 

Robert Black, senior fellow at the nonpartisan National Constitution Center, wrote last month: “There are a number of ways this could play out. If Congress passes a resolution stating its position on the ERA’s validity one way or another, the courts would likely defer to that judgment, or would at least have to consider whether to defer to it.”

Black also stated if Congress can’t resolve the issue on its own, “That could force the courts to act even where they would rather defer. In that case, would a subsequent Congress be able to weigh in?” Black wrote. “Or what if Congress declares that the ERA is not valid; could a future Congress reverse that determination?”

Kate Kelly isn’t surprised that states that have sought to rescind previous ratification. Before this month’s lawsuit, five state legislatures — Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota — voted to revoke their ERA ratifications. 

It remains an unresolved legal question as to whether a state can revoke its ratification of a federal constitutional amendment. Kelly argues that because Ohio’s and New Jersey’s attempts to do so have not prevailed in court, she feels confident that the ERA effort will prevail.

“I believe that the rescind argument is our clearest and easiest [to refute] ,” Kelly said. 

Laura Carter Callow | Ken Coleman photo

Carter Callow, however, has braced herself for continued fight.

“The antis will not give up,” Carter Callow said. “They will raise the issue of the time limit.”

Advance Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender contributed to this report.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.