Mrs America

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Author: Dr Amelia Peterson (LIS Faculty)
A social scientist with a background in policy and consulting. 

One of my favourite pieces of quasi-lockdown viewing was the BBC’s Mrs America, a nine-part series co-produced with HBO and charting the fate of the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The Equal Rights Amendment – known as the ERA – was an attempt to change the U.S. constitution to explicitly render illegal discrimination on the basis of sex. In other words, to give women equal rights in laws including those on divorce, working hours, and the military.

The ERA was first proposed in 1923, but was only formerly introduced into congress in 1971, after the success of the 1960s Civil Rights movement had led to the successful passing of the Civil Right Act in 1964. Nevertheless, in 1971 the ERA had a clear majority of support from both women and men across America, and support from both Republican and Democrat politicians.

So why didn’t the ERA get passed? That’s the question posed by Mrs America.

The first reason it was so difficult to pass is because of political structures. Every country had a different political structure and some are harder to achieve changes in than others. The Civil Rights Act and the ERA were quite different types of laws. While the Civil Rights Act sought to protect and enforce rights which already existed under the constitution (namely, the right to vote), the ERA sought to change the constitution. And changing the U.S. constitution is pretty hard. It has occurred just 27 times over the 230 or so years since it was written, and the majority of those were pre-20th century. For an amendment to pass, it has to first be passed by Congress and the Senate, and then ratified by a super-majority (60%) of states: that is, a campaign has to be successful at the national level but also in each of at least 37 states, to persuade 37 state legislatures to vote to ratify. That’s a lot of opportunities for opposition to rock the boat.

A few weeks after the show came out, legendary activist Gloria Steinem, who is now 86 but in her 30s was a leading campaigner for the ERA, co-authored an article with another activist, Eleanor Smeal, arguing that the programme makers had got it all wrong.

Steinem and Smeal took issue with the narrative that presented the battle over the ERA as a “catfight” between two camps of women: the “Libbers” (Women’s Liberation Movement) and a band of housewives led by campaigner Phyllis Schlafly. Although I think the show does pretty well to not just present it as a “catfight”, but to make the female characters multidimensional and realistic, Steinem and Smeal point out that what is missing is any focus on the other big opposition they faced: lobbying from corporate interests, including the insurance industry, who stood to lose billions of dollars if they had to stop practices of charging men and women different amounts for premiums (Smeal made a similar argument in this article from 1982, after the ERA was first defeated).

‘Lobbying’ describes the work done by special interest groups who represent particular companies or industries. Lobbying can become part of what political scientists call ‘quiet politics’ – the activity that occurs outside the democratic process, out of the public eye, that influence policy decisions.

The lesson of the ERA is that for a social movement to be successful it is often not enough just to win over public opinion – you also have to defeat special interests. As with so many things, understanding social activism requires us to look beneath the surface of what’s visible to understand what’s really going on.

Read more:
Why We Lost the ERA – Jane Mansfield
Quiet Politics and Business Power – Pepper Culpepper

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