Revisiting the Equal Rights Amendment During Women’s History Month

Introduction 

March is Women’s History Month, which makes it the perfect time to look back on the fight for women’s rights throughout history with your students. Many students (and probably some teachers) are surprised to learn that the right to vote is the only right specifically given to women in the United States Constitution. While legislation like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and The Equal Pay Act have addressed gender-based discrimination in some contexts, it has never been explicitly outlawed with an constitutional amendment. 

The Equal Rights Amendment

First introduced in 1923, the ERA is a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that aims to make sex-based discrimination illegal. It was finally passed by Congress in 1972, but the necessary number of states did not ratify it in time and it therefore never became part of the Constitution. The most recent proposition of the ERA reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” 

Teaching about the ERA: 

  1. Start out with a Think-Pair-Share: What are some rights that are guaranteed by the US Constitution? Who is guaranteed those rights?
  2. Watch this short video on the ERA
  3. Discussion Questions: 
    1. What are some examples of discrimination based on sex?
    2. How do the words spoken by Alice Paul almost a century ago resonate with you today? “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”
  4.  Activity Ideas: 
    1. Letter writing campaign: have students write to their Senators or Representatives expressing their support for the ERA. 
    2. Reflect on whether the ERA goes far enough: the ERA makes no mention of the LGBTQ+ community, non-binary and gender non conforming individuals or gender identity. Do you think it should? Why or why not? Draft a new ERA if you think it needs to be updated. 
    3. Draft another proposed amendment to the Constitution: in groups, have students brainstorm other rights that are not guaranteed by the Constitution (some examples: housing, food, water, education, healthcare). They can choose one and draft a proposed amendment guaranteeing that right. They should also discuss what opposition their amendment might face on the way to ratification. 
  5. Download a more detailed lesson plan and worksheet

Conclusion

It’s essential that we remember and reflect upon the fact that the fight for gender justice is still ongoing in the United States. It’s also important to question whether the ERA, as written, would go far enough to guarantee equal rights if it were passed today. Giving students the opportunity to engage with these questions will help them form their own opinions and encourage them to question the structures that have governed our history. 

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