• U.S.

Nation: New Victory in an Old Crusade

8 minute read

THE American woman’s fight for equality under the law began even as the Continental Congress was hammering the nation into shape. “My dear John,” Abigail Adams wrote to her influential husband: “In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion.” “Depend upon it,” John Adams replied with kindly condescension, “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

And so it has gone. Women, who are 51% of the nation’s population, and hold 37% of the jobs, earn overall salaries that are 42% less than those for men. Although they gained the right to vote 50 years ago after laborious struggles, there is only one woman in the U.S. Senate, ten in the House, none on the Supreme Court or in the President’s Cabinet. Virtually all of the nation’s systems—industry, unions, the professions, the military, the universities, even organizations of the New Left—are quintessentially masculine establishments.

Yet the spiritual heiresses of Abigail Adams are rising in the rebellion she predicted. To men—and a great many women—the onset of the new women’s movement seems startlingly abrupt. In many ways, however, the new feminism is developing along the lines of the civil rights movement. A young, assertive Women’s Liberation Movement has brought new publicity and fire to the older, more genteel crusade, bewildering and sometimes outraging men in the way that black radicals infuriate and frighten whites.

Time Had Come. There are, of course, many differences. Unlike blacks, women are not a minority. That fact is obviously not lost on politicians. Last week, by 350 to 15, the House passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing “equality of rights under the law” to women. “This,” proclaimed House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, “is an idea whose time had come.”

The time could have come at least two generations earlier; the idea of sexual equality under the law is hardly novel in the U.S. Every year since 1923, some form of the amendment has been introduced in the House. For the past 22 years, however, the House Judiciary Committee, headed by New York Democrat Emanuel Celler, has bottled up the amendment without even bothering to hold hearings on it.

Prying the resolution loose from the normally indomitable Celler, a 48-year veteran of the House, was primarily the achievement of Michigan’s Martha Griffiths (see box). The job took her 15 years—Mrs. Griffiths began working for the amendment as a freshman in 1955. She won ultimately by persuading the House to support a rarely used parliamentary device, the discharge petition, which forces a measure out of committee onto the House floor.

Mrs. Griffiths began collecting the necessary 218 signatures for her petition early this spring. A lawyer, she armed herself with an unemotional and intricate argument for the amendment, citing many legal case histories of sex discrimination. In the end, all the House leaders, including John McCormack, supported the effort.

Politics was doubtless as persuasive as the merits of the bill. Somewhat ingenuously, Celler declared: “I don’t know exactly why Congress acted so precipitously on this. Of course we are on the eve of an election.” “In 1968,” Mrs. Griffiths pointed out, “2,000.000 more women than men voted. In 1970, it is estimated that 3,000,000 more women than men will vote.”

Unnecessary Protection. In some ways, the amendment might be redundant—but then, women activists are in favor of all the redundancy they can get. The 14th Amendment already guarantees equal rights to “all persons.” In addition, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination by sex as well as race in hiring. Thus, say opponents, there is no need for the amendment. Mrs. Griffiths counters: “Of course there would be no need for it, if the Supreme Court would do what it ought to do. But in 1938, for example, the court forced the admission of a Negro to the University of Missouri Law School, then in 1959 refused the same protection to two Texas women who applied to Texas A & M College to study science.”

Most of organized labor opposes the amendment, arguing that it will destroy a broad carapace of laws that “protect” women workers by regulating their hours and the kinds of work they can perform. The women’s movement believes that such protections form a kind of conspiracy to prevent women from expanding their employment opportunities. In Ohio, for example, women cannot work as crossing watchmen, electric-meter readers, shoeshine girls, pin setters in bowling alleys. In nine states women cannot be employed in establishments serving alcohol.

The amendment would apply in other ways. It would abolish discrimination against women applying to state colleges and universities, such as higher scholastic standards required of women applicants. It would also abolish restrictions on married women in jobs —for example the refusal to promote women because of fear they will become pregnant and leave the job.

Some men have joked about women now trying to sign up with the Green Bay Packers, but obviously candidates for any such physically demanding work will be chosen for their ability to do the work, just as men customarily are. The amendment would also leave women liable to the military draft and presumably clear the way for entrance to West Point and Annapolis. But women already serve in the military, and in practice would not be required to perform duties for which they were unequipped. Besides, as women in the movement are fond of pointing out, the Israelis —and Viet Cong—routinely use women as soldiers.

Many men might be somewhat happier about the amendment’s effects on divorce laws. It would prohibit the payment of alimony only to women, for example, so that in many cases men might collect. In child custody suits, any legal preference shown to mothers would be eliminated.

Some argue that one danger of the amendment is that it may prompt a deluge of lawsuits demanding clarification of existing statutes. Should that happen, the courts could be clogged for years.

Psychological Impact. The equal-rights amendment may not produce practical results for some time. The Senate, with the support of 83 members already pledged, is virtually certain to pass it. Three-quarters of the states must ratify it, however, a process that could take several years.

But its passage now bears a powerful psychological impact. Throughout the nation, many thousands of women are awakening to a new sensitivity about what Author Kate Millett (TIME, Aug. 3) calls “sexual politics.” In every major city, women, most of them young, gather for “consciousness-raising” rap sessions, the awareness rituals of The Sisterhood. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other feminist groups have called on women to stage a Strike for Equality on Aug. 26. Last week, in a preliminary demonstration, feminists brandished antisexist placards beneath the Statue of Liberty.

Pop Mesta. Ethel Scull, a sort of pop Perle Mesta in New York circles, last week threw a fund-raising Women’s Lib party at her East Hampton estate. Half of the guests were reporters or photographers. Representative Patsy Mink, a heroine of the movement since she took on one doctor’s argument that women are too hormonally unstable for positions of power, was scheduled to speak, but fled without a word. One braless and strapping writer for the Village Voice interrupted serious oratory by abruptly stripping to her panties and plunging into the swimming pool. Writer Gloria Steinem, a co-hostess at the party, offered a solemn interpretation of the movement: “The problem with Women’s Lib is that it is misunderstood by men. Men think that once women become liberated, it will mean no more sex for men. But what men don’t realize is that if women are liberated, there will be more sex and better.”

A lot of men worry that there will simply be less privacy. Last week, after New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill designed to open the city’s public accommodations to women, a determined group of women’s liberationists appeared at the door of McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village. A delightful if grubby all-male sanctuary for 116 years, McSorley’s was previously, as one aged regular said, “not the kind of place a nice girl would want to go to anyway.” When the women appeared, rowdies booed and cursed ostentatiously, exhaling the fumes of onions and Limburger cheese. One fellow confronted a vice president of NOW and poured a stein of ale on her head.

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