Record #22: Equal Rights Amendment Ephemera
The middle decades of the 20th century were a time of great change in the United States, and Pittsburgh- as we’re growing to learn!- was a prime microcosm reflecting national events. While we explored the Civil Rights Movement in last week’s post, this week we’re turning our attention to the second wave of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women had been making strides forward in the public and political spheres, but, in the same way that suffrage didn’t guarantee practical equality to African-Americans, many feminists still found that they were facing discrimination and prejudices. Suffragette Alice Paul drafted what she called the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” in 1923, which simply suggested that “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The battle to get this amendment passed, however, would take half a century, and would ultimately prove futile.
Second wave feminism truly came into its own in the 1960s, particularly in the wake of “The Feminine Mystique” and a gradual relaxation of gender mores. In 1966, activists formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) to serve as an advocate group for equal rights between men and women. Local community chapters soon spread throughout the country. One of the first presidents of NOW’s Pittsburgh chapter was Jean Witter, a local woman who had earned a degree from Duquesne University and worked as a chemical librarian and scientific research assistant, eventually at Pitt. Witter enjoyed her career and broadening her education, but she was also a wife and a mother of two sons. She became interested in the women’s equality movement in the mid-1960s, and was attracted to NOW shortly after its formation.
Even with gains in equal employment, women still weren’t safe from prejudice and discrimination. This flyer from labor and women’s rights activist Steffi Domike helps women working in steel mills respond to some of the more insulting comments they were used to hearing from male coworkers.
As a member of NOW, Witter became a staunch advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was the contemporary iteration of Alice Paul’s original 1923 suggested amendment. With a strong national group to back it, passage of the ERA suddenly moved to the forefront of the national stage. After NOW-organized strikes in 1970 garnered more attention for women’s rights issues, with the ERA being the central focus, Congress took up the process of passing the amendment. It was passed by the House and the Senate, and was endorsed by President Nixon in 1972. The final step in the amendment process required that 38 states were required to ratify it before it would become official law.
By 1973, 30 states were on board (including Pennsylvania), but progress stalled afterwards. Opposition to the amendment came from social conservatives who believed that the amendment would upend traditional gender roles to the detriment of women. One refrain that was particularly hurtful to the ERA was the belief that its passage would ensure that women would become eligible for the draft, which was a very real fear for those living in the Vietnam era. The 38-state quota had to be met by 1979; with the number of ratifying states at 35, the cause seemed lost. NOW engaged in a campaign to heavily promote the amendment, giving away buttons, pins, flyers, bumper stickers… anything that would help spread the word and get people talking. Many of these campaign items were kept by Witter, and are now a part of her archival collection.
Buttons and a pendant from Jean Witter’s collection, all promoting the necessity of the Equal Rights Amendment’s ratification.
NOW rallied behind a new idea in another effort to get the ERA passed, and Witter was to play a starring role. As she became more deeply involved with the Pittsburgh NOW chapter, Witter had decided to go back to school at Duquesne to get her JD in order to boost her credibility when arguing for the constitutionality and necessity of laws to protect women. Based on a legal opinion authored by Witter, NOW backed a Congressional Joint Resolution to extend the ratification deadline to June 30th, 1982. It was a great personal victory for Witter and for NOW as a whole; however, it ended in vain. In the additional three-year span, no further states adopted the amendment, and the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment was lost.
While there remains no constitutional amendment specifically tailored to gender discrimination, great legal strides were made in the ensuing decades to help promote equality between the sexes. Though the issue of equality still generates debate in modern social and political discourse, the work of women like Witter laid the basis for future legal action. Witter is far from the only name in women’s rights activism in Pittsburgh. She was a contemporary, correspondent, and friend of JoAnn Evansgardner, another NOW leader who served on the National Board of the organization, and whose husband, Gerald Gardner, was the first Director and Treasurer of the Pittsburgh chapter. Other local activists included Steffi Domike, Susanna Downie, and Joni Rabinowitz. Pittsburgh was active in First Wave Feminism as well; Jennie Bradley Roessing’s papers highlight her involvement with early 20th century suffragist efforts. The ERA ratification ephemera from Jean Witter’s Papers reflects Pittsburgh’s female activist history, and helps illustrate how, again, local individuals were able to make a difference on the national stage.
Another NOW promotional tool- slightly more scathing than the above buttons- was the board game “Sexism,” also a part of Witter’s collection. The point of the game? “A woman who wants to be liberated follows a torturous path across the board from the doll house to the White House, while male chauvinists gleefully put her down…” Players are sent back spaces for “infractions” such as graduating college without being married and not cleaning the house to their husband’s satisfaction. The instructions note that “manufacturers will not be held responsible for injuries resulting from argument.”
- Ashley Taylor