We already have a number of excellent works on the so-far-unsuccessful fight to secure ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Some books focus on the spark plug of the movement, National Woman’s Party founder Alice Paul, some on the events leading up to the creation of the pathbreaking Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and some on the failure to ratify the ERA in the late twentieth century. The great contribution made by Rebecca DeWolf in Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920–1963 lies in the granular detail she provides about the way the amendment evolved in the early 1920s and why it took the shape it did. With an impressive array of sources, she teases out the constitutional and real-world implications of the earlier Nineteenth Amendment and delineates how the dawning realization that it was only part of the solution to women’s unequal citizenship rights played out for a number of different organizations and individuals.
Particularly helpful in sorting out the players are the categories she sets forth. There are the emancipationists, who endorsed the concept of an ERA more or less from the start. Then there are the liberal protectionists, women and men drawn from the ranks of the labor movement and, in the 1930s, from New Dealers, people who supported women’s rights but wanted to maintain special protection for women workers and feared that this protection would be undermined by the ERA. Finally, there are the conservative protectionists who opposed the amendment because their highest priority was maintaining traditional gender roles.
A key issue—one still with us in the battle to protect voting rights now, given that the Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965—was the matter of which jurisdiction, the individual states or the federal government, should specify the exact rights to which women were entitled after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yes, women could vote on the same basis as men in every state, but their right to serve on juries, for example, varied widely, depending on the state in which they lived. And many a southern politician worried that if rights for women were made uniform, that might interfere with his state’s capacity to discriminate on the basis of race. DeWolf provides excellent detail on this important matter.
It is well established that Alice Paul, in a climate of southern defensiveness over states’ rights, was willing to make alliances with racists to achieve her goal of getting the ERA into the Constitution. DeWolf lets us know that those on the other side of the debate were also culpable in this regard. For example, in 1932, “Mrs. William J. Carson” of the League of Women Voters, an ERA opponent, testified before the House Judiciary Committee and suggested that the proposed amendment might interfere with a state’s right to impose its own racial order by establishing an overly egalitarian regime (82f).
This book is a fine contribution to scholarship, but there are a few problems. In the first place, though DeWolf mentions a couple of Black women—Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height—she fails to provide any depth of information about the stances toward the ERA taken by the many Black women’s organizations that were thriving by the mid-twentieth century. Thanks to a number of recent books, we know more than ever about Black women’s profound engagement in politics at every level, from the local to the national.1 Surely, at least some of those women and the groups they led voiced an opinion on the proposed amendment.
Additionally, DeWolf tells us on more than one occasion that the liberal protectionists were concerned about how the ERA might affect women workers as mothers, hence their opposition. What she does not acknowledge is the fact that the issue of pregnancy in the workplace has continued to be problematic; in short, the issue was not merely a matter of these protectionists having retrograde opinions. After all, parental leave policies can be made gender neutral, but pregnancy policies not so much.
A good instance of how this dilemma has played out is the case of California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra from the 1980s. An employee for the savings and loan, who had worked there for four years, requested and obtained maternity leave. But when she tried to get her job back following the birth of her child, the employer argued that this would be unjust special treatment and refused to reemploy her. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the savings and loan lost. What is noteworthy is that this case found feminists on both sides, with the National Organization for Women opposing any kind of special treatment for women, and the pathbreaking feminist law firm Equal Rights Advocates supporting the employee.2 The point is that this split echoed earlier divisions between emancipationists and liberal protectionists about whether the law can treat men and women as fully fungible. It would not be fair to expect DeWolf to discuss a case from the 1980s in detail in a book that ends in 1963, but it would be good to acknowledge more fully that dealing with pregnancy remains tricky.
How to guarantee women full citizenship rights after the Nineteenth Amendment awarded them the right to vote is an issue that now goes back one hundred years and is still not fully resolved, as the legal landscape after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) decision will attest. What those who care about women’s rights have going for them, however, is the fact that the Supreme Court has employed the Fourteenth Amendment to rule against gender discrimination ever since Reed v. Reed in 1971. In an epilogue, DeWolf gives a brief account of the ways in which this has made jurisprudence involving gender more equitable and where the new regime has fallen short.
To sum up, this book is truly valuable for those who wish to understand where women now stand under the law and would be appropriate for upper-division and graduate classes.
See, in particular, Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
For a discussion of this case, see Joan C. Williams, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).