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Seat at the Table

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

by Ruby Scalera

Throughout the history of the women’s movement, there have been dissenting voices from within and without. A long history of evolving crossovers, compromise and loaded rhetoric from all sides lends itself to two fundamental ideas; who is opposed to women’s equality in America and why. With these kinds of questions in mind, it is necessary to move beyond the spheres where progress is often recorded, and to look deeper into the everyday lives and choices of those on the front lines. 

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In fact, to really tell this story, one must redefine what it means to be on the front lines in the first place, because there is no denying that two distinct battles have been waged over the course of the women’s movement. There has, of course, been a battle for legal protection in the streets, on the quads, and in the courtrooms. However, there is a far more subtle, far more understated battle for power, identity, opportunity, and equality that wasn’t expressed by marches, meetings, bra burnings and sit-ins. There was this other, constant, private war being fought everyday right in the home, the location where, for most women, the gender-based walls of privilege and oppression collide most clearly and most personally.  

And nowhere does the intersection between these two worlds show through more starkly than in the history of the ongoing struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, a keystone of the push for social, legal and political equality for all women--and people--in the United States. One might think the protection of basic rights for the majority of the population may seem the obvious choice. And, in fact, it was readily supported at both a social and political level upon its proposal, passing the Senate in March of 1972 and upheld by both political parties over the last half-century. However, that does not change one fundamental truth. Women are still not protected under the Constitution of the United States of America.

Bella Abzug marches for ERA

“I started my research and I ended up with over 26 different areas where I felt like our laws were somehow not delivering the outcome that they purported to be there to deliver,” say Kamala Lopez, writer, producer and director of the film Equal Means Equal, documenting the lives of women in America and around the world. “Could it be true that it’s all tied to the fact that, at the end of the day, women aren’t [yet] included in the Constitution and therefore their very basic legal status is in question?” Her film, released in 2016, covers just ten of those areas, connecting topics like wage discrimination, poverty, healthcare, incarceration and the judicial system, all back to one single sentence, section one of the Equal Rights Amendment: 

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Because, of course, even women who do not personally experience all of these things are systematically still at the mercy of this inequality. For example, pregnancy discrimination and a lack of paid maternity leave force many women to decide between two potential lives and consistently threatened access to contraceptives and education often takes the choice away entirely. Kamala Lopez continues, “What became even more horrifying to me was the vast gaslighting of these generations of girls who have come of age since 1982 who truly believe they’re equal, who truly believe they’re empowered.” And yet, nearly a full century after the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced into Congress in 1921, the amendment still remains unratified, hanging in the balance  of a single state’s ratification that can mean the fundamental reimagining of women’s lives at work, in school, or right in the home. 

Phyllis Schlafly

And as we know, its in the home where some of the fiercest of battles are fought. In American society, the household, the kitchen table, has long been an epicenter of change or lack thereof. Whether pushing to open doors or actively holding the frontline against such progress, traditional homemakers, whatever their beliefs, all had one thing in common. The exercising of their power as a collective force would radically change the very nature of the American nuclear family--and, indeed, America itself for good. However, these powerful forces of women were not limited to the side of women’s civil rights (equality), and as such, the changing of the very heart of the issue for women’s rights was not so much the one taking place at marches or rallies, but rather, the one continuously being waged in the domestic sphere, as factions either embraced or rejected the old order with righteous fervor.  And how those women make themselves heard will ultimately decide the future of the ERA--just as they have always done. 

“I think it’s important for people to understand how the opposition worked through women to undermine women’s own needs,” Lopez says. “In fact, it was women that prevented us from getting equal rights for women through Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum as the main face of that opposition. But it is my strong belief that under the face of that opposition, there was funding.” For those who have followed the history of the ERA, the name Phyllis Schlafly is a familiar one that elicits strong reactions on both sides of the issue. A polarizing figure, Schlafly became the symbol of the opposition for women’s equality by women. She was well-educated, motivated and outspoken--particularly against the Equal Rights Amendment, a perspective that many agree created the leftist partisan tilt to the bill that ultimately undermined ratification efforts. Her values are succinctly summed up in the STOP ERA signs, acronyms for Stop Taking Our Privileges. Those privileges, which appealed to many conservative, homemaking women, were simple on the surface (and reflective of society at the time)—the protection of gendered bathrooms, social security benefits for wives and, perhaps most controversially, the question of the draft--undoubtedly at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the early 1970s. 

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And yet, was the maintenance of the old way worth the sacrifice of women’s protection under the Constitution, on the heels of the Equal Pay Act and just as Title IX was redefining women’s athletics, programming and opportunities across the country? There were many, too, who pointed to the hypocrisy of Schlafly’s message of preserving the Norman Rockwellian kitchen scene when she herself was a noted figure in law, politics and publishing. Before the rise of Schlafly’s catastrophic rhetoric and her capable management of her own female force, the Equal Rights Amendment was supported across both sides of the aisle, by presidents, members of Congress and many vocal social institutions. Without her influence, a rallying force made up of the very same demographic opposing them, there is every likelihood the Amendment would have come to pass to great fanfare from most of America. Because, whether intentional or dumb luck, the greatest opponent to an army of women is often an army of women. 

“Our politics have been complicated for the last two years, but we know that the majority of white women have historically voted for Republican candidates in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections,” explains Dr. Emerald M. Archer, the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary’s University in California. “If we only look at the fight for gender equity through one lens, we are going to miss out on so much nuance and only attempt to solve the problem for one kind of woman.” And while the powerful force that opposed women’s progress is surprising, many times those women at the forefront of the fight are equally as surprised to find themselves there, if they even realize their influence at all. Laurie Kahn is a director and producer with a focus on unique aspects of the women’s sphere, including midwifery, Tupperware and her recent documentary, Love Between the Covers, which highlights the women-centric world of romance novels. She believes that often times, conservative and conventional women didn’t see themselves at the front line of feminist movements, but nevertheless were busy breaking barriers in the all-too-important world of home-life, these domestic fronts, that would have far-reaching consequences for women’s rights. 

Tupperware ladies in the 1950’s

“The stereotypes of Tupperware ladies are that they’re all suburban bored housewives and that is not the case at all,” Kahn explains. “No one had ever really thought about why it had worked and what it meant to those people and taken them seriously.” The reason behind such prejudices doesn’t come as much of a surprise. “For women, by women, about women,” Kahn says, of both Tupperware and the romance novel community. “I think anything that’s predominately female is lesser in our culture. And it’s in the air we breathe. I think a lot of women pick this up. It’s not just a male prejudice.”

Neither is it a prejudice that abates over time, even as conversations about intersectionality, inclusion and progress continue to enter the mainstream. And yet, while many women are finding their own voice and forging their own paths in traditionally female spaces, they are not without opposition from those right within their own circles. From the very first march for the Equal Rights Amendment (date) to the 1970s to modern day, women representing the domestic sphere--specifically suburban white women--have embraced the privilege to vote outside their own best interests. According to CNN exit polls, 60% of white women voted for Ted Cruz in the most recent midterm election, a candidate who voted to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, who supported Hobby Lobby in their fight against the Obamacare Contraceptive Mandate and who voted against the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. 

“It is absolutely at all levels of somebody’s being, when you grow up in a system, a cultural system, a world, that espouses what I would call the patriarchy, [or] hierarchy,” explains Roberta “Bobby” Francis, the ERA Education Consultant at the Alice Paul Institute in New Jersey and a long-time activist. “It goes through and through your psychology, your religious [beliefs], your theology, and it’s pretty consistent. You don’t have much cognitive dissonance until something happens.” For Francis, the fight for the ERA was what she referred to as her “feminist click” and continues to be today. She is, perhaps, a prime example of how rebellion and the fight for women’s rights have always been a two-front battle--with few understanding exactly how powerful the home-front battalion truly is--whether they are voting, voicing and marching for women’s rights, or are acting as both victim and perpetrator of a patriarchal and hierarchical system.  

Annie Morton

“The women’s movement when I first got started in the ERA was every bit as much in my home as it was at Gloria Steinem’s typewriter and with Betty Friedan, as it was in Dorothy Height,” Francis adds. She has both worked in and outside the home, raising children, and following in the activist homemaker footsteps of those like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who raised seven children all while becoming a leading voice in the fight for women’s right to vote and for legal protection under the Constitution. 

It is not and has never been a cut and dry divide down which suburban versus urban, racial, economic or religious lines have been drawn in the sand. Rather, it is the fundamental understanding that at all stages of the fight for women’s rights or against the movement toward political, legal and social equity, women at the home front, those waging wars against unequal division of labor, against presumptions, and against traditional roles without choice or opportunity have always been underestimated, unrepresented and undervalued. And whether the Phyllis Schlaflys or the Elizabeth Cady Statons, whether the women marching in the street for equality under the law of the land or the women forging economic independence for themselves within the very constructs of domesticity, those parties have gone on to fight, fight hard and make concrete, permanent and lasting change. 

“Let’s look in a lot of places, to describe and define where the women’s movement is,” Francis says. “When you break the should presumptions, you’re going against more than just who’s going to cook tonight’s meal. You’re going against a whole system.” And going against the system is done best in numbers. Many vocal advocates of the ERA and the women’s movement came to their cause via the Civil Rights Movement from a few years earlier. Certainly, for Francis, it was the push for racial equality that led her to fully understand how limited her own rights were in both the legal and social sphere. 

Debra Scherer

“I was very turned on by the Civil Rights movement,” she explains, of what first brought her to fight for the ERA, “and didn’t get it until 10 plus years later, around ‘77, that sex discrimination was systemic the way that race discrimination so obviously was.” She is, of course, not the only one and the modern movements for equality do not make for the sole intersection between the fight for equality of both sex and race. They are not, in fact, parallel systems fighting for unique rights in isolated environments, but rather, the continuum of a single story, movements, and advances and defeats building atop one another over the decades. It is an inherently false foundation to frame the women’s rights movement as a minority movement, but just as false to speak of it in insolation.

When conversations are had in boardrooms, courtrooms and other epicenters of power, they inevitably focus upon the plight of a specific type of woman. But the history has never been about one type of woman--and nowhere is that more clear than the role of the paid worker in the domestic sphere. Such is the focus of Caroline Fredrickson’s book, Under the Bus, which delves into how women in the domestic field were intentionally left behind in the forging of the New Deal, in order to pass more pressing legislation. Women in childcare and home care jobs, consistently women of color, are left without legal protection, resource or opportunity. They are notoriously underpaid, liable to be fired without recourse and some of the most vulnerable members of the working world today. “Women’s role in the home has always been devalued,” Fredrickson says, “The difference was that [the domestic sphere] was a sphere in the North that was often done by women in their own home, whereas in the South, you had a plantation economy that still existed, an African American population of women serving in the households of wealthier white people and they wanted to protect their system.” 

Andre Wagner

With Roosevelt’s need to push through the New Deal and legislation for modern workers rights, something was bound to give. “It was sort of the overlay of racism and misogyny,” Fredrickson explains, of how domestic workers were denied the same rights that workers in industry and production were now afforded. “Devaluing the role of women in caregiving, meaning, it shouldn’t be paid like a job, it’s not really a job, as well as the racism that added vehemence to the argument.” 

Those fateful laws set into place more than eighty years ago directly impacted each wave of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and increasing need for its success. Women needed to make money to help support their families and the question of childcare and stability became impossible to ignore. Lack of legal protection both within the workplace and without has long been an influencing standard where the women’s rights movement is concerned, doubly so when the question of race is also put on the table. “I think it’s just very important in this moment to see how much has been done through this organic organizing that has been the product of people on the ground, women experiencing real discrimination with a direct and palpable impact on their lives,” Fredrickson adds. “That’s been a really healthy and important part of the women’s movement, to have that kind of recognition that we all have to pull together and understand the challenges that we all face.” 

Andre Wagner

Numbers put forth by Dr. Archer show exactly how much influence women have in the workforce and, by extension, the changing role of the domestic sphere. “Women’s labor force participation in the US has increased throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, and peaked at 60% in 1999. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that women will make up 47.2% of the labor force in 2024,” she says. “Today, we have to make sure companies are held accountable to protecting women in the workplace. We have to have fair family leave policies, transparent pay practices, and pathways to reporting predatory behavior without fear of repercussion. These are the challenges we will continue to face in the future.” 

All of it, from the lack of legal protection in the workforce to the historic abuse of domestic workers, to the intersection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement, comes back to a single concept—environments culturally considered places for women—have played a fundamental role in America’s history and will continue to do so in whatever capacity they are able. To underestimate them is to be surprised by what they are capable of achieving, and yet, too, their challenges and defeats are the direct results of long-standing systems literally designed to thwart them. 

Francis sees common themes at each stage of the movement, whether it is the question of fighting for the black man’s right to vote, pushing for all women’s right to vote, or the early and often slow progress of the Suffragette movement, all of which lend themselves to the question of what took so long? “What will we look back on that’s happening now and say “what took so long”? Well, the ERA is going to be that,” Francis says. 

Andre Wagner

“The ERA was caught in the meat grinder, the country’s turn in a conservative direction, Goldwater’s loss, that led to Reagan being elected. They had something called a Southern Strategy and they really played the racism and sexism cards hard.” And not for the first time in history or for the last, according to Francis, who draws easy parallels between the voter suppression and fear-mongering of the last push for the ERA and the modern day. “That’s a direct line and not even lost in the midst in the history,” she says, of the same issues facing the Equal Rights Amendment today. While the line between homemakers and working women is far more difficult to draw, given the numbers of women in the workforce and the shapeshifting definition of what to means to be at work, the factors that have influenced it at every step, things like privilege, fear, and identity continue to play a powerful role. Perhaps it is a conversation at the dinner table and perhaps it comes in the form of entering a field where few women have ever been welcome. In many more ways than one, the home--the choice to stay, the choice to leave or the choice to do something in between, is the central hub of the movement for women’s rights and, indeed, all rights. “The women that opposed the ERA, some knew a lot more what they were doing and some came along for the ride. Whether they knew it or not, they were on the front lines for the patriarchy,” Francis explains. “And the people working for the ERA were on the front lines for a feminist worldview. It doesn’t mean you stop analyzing it there. That’s just the beginning. But to me, that’s just the bottom line.” With only one state’s ratification required for the long-delayed passing of the ERA, and supporters hopeful for a 2019 victory, perhaps it will finally be time for all of us to ask the question “what took so long?”

Banner image: Brenda Feigen Fasteau arguing about candidate support while Ms. editor Gloria Steinem, NOW President Wilma Scott Heide & feminist/author Betty Freidan look on, during meeting of Caucus’s National Policy Council. (Photo by Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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To glance at the timeline of the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement is to see paths that diverge and connect in large and small ways throughout history. As their predecessors were in the early days of the Abolitionist Movement, Women’s Rights activists of the 20th century were largely inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, including activist Bobby Francis. For many, it was the starkness of inequality and inequity highlighted by the Civil Rights Movement that made clear exactly how few protections women still had at work, in the home, and in the world at large. “[It’s] the feeling of what’s fair and not fair, especially in a country that purports to believe in justice and equal rights under the law,” Because women have been waging wars for the right to live their lives since the beginning of civilization, not in isolation, not without backward movement, not without their own internalized discrimination, but a war nonetheless. It is entwined with the Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements, the Gay Rights Movement, Prohibition, the economy and advances in sciences, industry, art and literature. A timeline for the Women’s Rights Movement is not, in fact, a timeline for the Women’s Right Movement at all. It is simply history.