Alabama and the Equal Rights Amendment

By Rachel McGough, Ph.D. Student, Loyola University Chicago, and Scotty E. Kirkland, ADAH

"Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex."

—  Text of the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment 

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Alabama lawmakers rejected calls to extend the franchise to women on three occasions. Fifty years later, their successors dealt similarly with related calls for women’s equality. The history of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in Alabama reveals another portion of a long debate over the role of government in society.

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Alabama Journal, June 17, 1976. Alabama Department of Archives and History

Shortly after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, suffrage leader Alice Paul penned what became known as the ERA. Paul, leader of the National Women’s Party, saw votes for women as merely the first step in a broader campaign for equality. Supporters ensured that Paul’s proposed amendment was introduced before every session of the U.S. Congress for more than four decades. As part of the broader campaign for women’s rights during the 1970s, the ERA found new and more widespread favor. Through the efforts of Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, a Michigan Democrat, the ERA passed the U.S. House of Representatives on October 12, 1971. Alabama’s entire congressional delegation voted in favor. The Senate followed with its approval on March 22, 1972, including both of Alabama’s senators.

Congressional approval opened a new chapter in the campaign for the ERA. Supporters had until March 22, 1979, a full seven years, to convince thirty-eight state legislatures to ratify the amendment, which would secure its addition to the U.S. Constitution. By the end of the year, thirty states had ratified the amendment. 

Initially, the ERA seemed to enjoy wide support among advocacy groups and Alabama lawmakers alike. The state division of the American Association of University Women urged its nearly two thousand members to lobby for the measure, as did the Alabama Women’s Political Caucus. Several groups held an informational session at the Alabama State Capitol on February 10, 1973, to garner additional support. Panelists included Alabama’s senior U.S. senator John Sparkman and influential state legislators including Eufaula’s Jimmy Clark, who served as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, and

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Alice Paul, Library of Congress.

Birmingham’s Richard Shelby, an early proponent. Soon thereafter, Shelby pre-filed a ratification resolution in the Senate, signaling his intent to seek action when the legislature  convened in the spring of 1973.  

In the months leading up to the legislative session, the ERA’s fate in Alabama became a hotly contested issue. The initial exuberance which met congressional passage of the measure ran headlong into a host of groups and individuals who either flatly opposed the ERA on moral grounds or had concerns about potential unintended consequences resulting from the amendment. Longtime political observers noted a rapid cooling on the matter from elected officials, none more so than Gov. George C. Wallace. During his 1968 presidential bid, Wallace had expressed a sense of “kinship” with Alice Paul and pledged to work to ratify the ERA if Congress would pass it. Just a few years later, with a ratification vote on the horizon, Alabama’s governor declared first his neutrality and then outright opposition to its passage.    

One reason for the shifting stance was the onset of sustained national and state campaigns against the ERA. The amendment’s most formidable foe was Missouri native Phyllis Schlafly. Already a powerful conservative political voice, Schlafly argued that the amendment would, among other things, remove protective labor laws for women and could force them into the military draft. Formed in late 1972, her organization STOP ERA crafted a series of broad arguments about the masculinization of women and the general subversion of gender roles that would result from ratification. Alabama organized one of the nation’s earliest chapters of STOP ERA. Its organizer was Eunie Smith, who was active in conservative causes in the state alongside her husband, Albert L. Smith Jr., who would later serve one term in the U.S. Congress. Eunie Smith led Alabama STOP ERA for a number of years and started the Alabama chapter of its successor organization, Eagle Forum, in 1976. 

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Flier from Alabama Women for Responsible Legislation, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

In March 1973, the Junior League of Birmingham hosted a debate between Schlafly and Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a former Texas legislator and member of the Democratic National Committee. That two of the leading figures in the national debate would square off in Alabama underscored how important the looming ratification vote in Montgomery would be for the future prospects of the amendment. Recent rejections by the legislatures in North Carolina and Nevada placed the success of the ERA in serious doubt. 

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Phyllis Schlafly (seated) and Frances Wideman, The Birmingham News, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History..

In Birmingham, Schlafly told attendees that the ERA would invalidate laws in every state requiring husbands to provide for the welfare of their wives and children. “The ERA will deprive every wife and mother of her most important legal right,” she reasoned: “The right NOT to take a job, the right to be supported by her husband and to bring up her babies in a home which he must provide.” Passage of the measure would impose upon women a “doctrinaire equality” that would upend the traditional family makeup and force them into the workplace. Farenthold countered that what the ERA really offered was a choice for women who wished to enter public life and a legal provision that would ensure that choice.

The growing opposition to the ERA in Alabama by the spring of 1973 included a number of women in elected office. Melba Till Allen, serving her second term as state auditor, expressed fears over what passage of the measure might bring. “The Amendment sounds really good. It sounds like Motherhood, love, and apple pie,” she told a Montgomery reporter. “But it is so wide-sweeping—it gets into everything. If we pass the ERA, I’m afraid women would lose

more than we would gain.” Etowah County’s Retha Dell Wynot, the lone woman in the Alabama Legislature, had “serious questions about the invasion of privacy” and noted that many of her constituents associated the ERA with “a radical bunch of women in this country who have lost touch with reality.” Rep. Gene Hardin of Greenville agreed. His pre-filed resolution calling for the rejection of the ERA deemed it “a fraud and a calculated deception instigated for malpurposes.” 

As the session convened, some legislators reported that as much as two-thirds of their constituent mail about the ERA expressed opposition to ratification. During a forum featuring the seven candidates who qualified to fill a vacant south Alabama legislative seat, only two expressed support of the ERA; neither man advanced to the runoff election. Months of public debates and campaigning culminated on May 30, 1973, at a committee hearing that included six hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of ratification. Several businesswomen testified in favor, as did the oldest speaker at the hearing, who stated she had voted in every election since the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment. Pat McDaniel, chair of the Alabama Women’s Political Caucus, offered the most succinct testimony of the hearing, rebutting a Birmingham opponent in just three sentences: “I am a woman. I am discriminated against. I need the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” Frances DeBardeleben Wideman, among the many opponents who arrived in Montgomery via a chartered bus from Birmingham, proclaimed, “We are not equal. We don’t want to be equal. We have been given preferential treatment. ERA means a step down for us.” 

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1972 handbook for supporters of the ERA published by the National Organization of Women, Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory.

 

At the end of the lengthy hearing, the committee voted to report the resolution to the full chamber “without recommendation,” which set the stage for a vote of the entire upper chamber a few days later. During a roll call vote on June 12, 1973, the Alabama Senate rejected the ERA by a vote of 26 to 6, bringing an end to the first ratification attempt in the state.  

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Left: Woman testifying before the Senate Rules Committee in the Alabama Senate chamber of the Capitol during a hearing on May 30, 1973, Mobile Press-Register, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Right: Jane Culbreth of Leeds, Alabama, was a staunch supporter of the ERA and an official in the National Business & Professional Woman organization, Alabama Department of Archives and History. The Birmingham News, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

With the legislature not scheduled to be in session again until 1975, ERA supporters focused their efforts on identifying candidates for public office who shared their views on ratification. Still, their greatest challenge seemed to be opposition by the legislative leadership. This fact was made clear in the early days of the 1975 session when the Alabama House voted to support a rules change requiring a three-fifths vote to ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The previous rule had required only a simple majority. Despite appeals from some legislators and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Speaker Joe McCorquodale refused to reconsider. The new threshold for ratification in the lower chamber meant there would be no ERA vote that year. 

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Brochure published by the National Women's Party, Alabama Department of Archives and HIstory.

 

Supporters saw 1976 as a year of overlapping opportunities to ratify the ERA in the Yellowhammer State. That year, the legislature began meeting annually instead of biennially, which increased the potential for sustained action ahead of the 1979 ratification deadline. Moreover, national advocacy groups had decided to renew their efforts to accomplish ratification during the commemoration of America’s bicentennial year, appealing to patriotic fervor and underscoring the important roles of women during pivotal moments in the nation’s history. “All eyes are on the South,” Jane Culbreth of Leeds wrote to Alabama First Lady Cornelia Wallace in an effort to win her support. “For Alabama to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment would be our finest hour. You have the opportunity of a lifetime as we begin the third century of America.”  


The upcoming legislative session would also serve as a proving ground for the group Alabama Citizens for ERA (ACERA). The coalition of nearly two dozen organizations emerged in the wake of the 1973 defeat. Formed in Jefferson County, where support for the ERA was high, ACERA was among the first biracial political advocacy groups in Alabama. Its leadership included Birmingham’s Louphenia Thomas, who would soon thereafter become the first African American woman elected to the Alabama House. ACERA marshaled supporters statewide and initiated a “district by district” letter-writing campaign to urge support for ratification. 

More than two hundred citizens filled the gallery of the Alabama House chamber on June 15, 1976, in support of the introduction of a new ratification resolution by Rep. A. L. Harrison of Birmingham. After a brief floor debate, the resolution was forwarded to the Rules Committee. Rep. Roy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, an ERA supporter, objected and called the referral a “grossly unfair” attempt to bog down the resolution in procedural mire. He called instead for the chamber to take up the ratification amendment immediately. Cheers of support from those in attendance drew the ire of Speaker McCorquodale, who threatened to clear the gallery of spectators. 

Harrison’s ratification resolution was met largely with opposition, led by Marilyn Quarles, the only woman then serving in the lower chamber. Observers of Alabama politics pronounced the bill as doomed. Five hours of testimony preceded the committee vote the following month. The resolution failed with a vote of 8 to 6.

 

The next effort at ratification launched in 1978 in the Senate, where supporter U. W. Clemon of Birmingham chaired the Rules Committee.  Clemon introduced a ratification resolution and navigated it through the committee by a one-vote margin, sending it to the full chamber. In the House, Representative Quarles renewed her strong objection to the ERA and nearly succeeded in passing an impromptu resolution condemning the ERA. During the floor debate in the upper chamber, Clemon said a vote in favor of ratification would be a “vindication of the principles set forth in the Constitution…. When the time comes to stand up and be counted, I want to be known as having been for equal rights for females.” Huntsville’s Bill King told fellow senators his constituents were “overwhelmingly opposed” to the ERA and despite his personal support he was voting against the measure. Clemon’s resolution failed by a vote of 24 to 8. 

The day after the ERA’s third defeat in the legislature, the Montgomery Advertiser characterized the amendment’s supporters as “kindred souls of Sisyphus,” repeatedly rolling a boulder uphill

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U. W. Clemon, The Birmingham News, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

and never succeeding. On the steps of the State Capitol that afternoon, hundreds of citizens participated in an anti-ERA rally sponsored by Phyllis Schlafly’s group, Eagle Forum. That such a large crowd would assemble to voice their opposition to the amendment, even after it had been defeated in the legislature, signaled that the politics surrounding the ERA in Alabama had become enmeshed with a number of other causes championed by a new generation of more conservative voters, including limited government, local control of education policy, and restrictions on abortion rights.

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Montgomery Advertiser, February 2, 1978.

 

In 1978, when Congress extended the deadline for the ERA’s ratification through 1982, only two members of Alabama’s congressional delegation voted with the majority. As the final year of consideration approached, ACERA’s leadership acknowledged the amendment had no future in the state and shifted their energies to other women’s issues. A 1982 ratification resolution submitted in the Alabama Senate by Birmingham’s Earl Hilliard was afforded neither a public hearing nor a committee vote. 

Alabama is among fifteen states that rejected the ERA. The debates surrounding the four attempts to pass the measure echo longstanding divides among women’s organizations on the best means of protecting

women’s interests.  

In the mid-2010s, a coalition of groups began lobbying state legislatures to ratify the ERA as part of the broader campaign for women’s rights during the #MeToo movement. Nevada voted to ratify the ERA in 2017. Illinois became the thirty-seventh state to ratify the following year. When Democrats won control of Virginia’s legislature in the November 2019 elections, the moment of the ERA’s long-delayed ratification seemed at hand. 

 

Before a vote could occur in the Old Dominion, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of himself and counterparts in Nevada and South Dakota seeking to block rising efforts to suspend the original ratification deadline. The matter remained unsettled when Virginia ratified the ERA on January 27, 2020. Supporters shifted their campaigns to Capitol Hill in an effort to convince the U.S. House and Senate to pass bills dissolving the original time limit written into the ERA, and thus secure its addition to the Constitution. The House passed the bill in March 2021. Congresswoman Terri Sewell was the only member of the Alabama congressional delegation to vote in support. The ERA, now ratified in the requisite thirty-eight states, faces an uncertain fate in both the U.S. Senate and the federal courts. Alabama may yet again play a pivotal role in

its history.    

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Woman testifying before the Senate Rules Committee in the Senate chamber of the Alabama Capitol during a debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, May 30, 1973. State senator Richard Shelby, who introduced the amendment, is seen at right, facing the camera, Mobile Press-Register, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Rachel McGough is a Ph.D. student at Loyola University Chicago. Scotty E. Kirkland is exhibits, publications, and programs coordinator at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.