Bitter fight over women's rights still resonates today
Published January 30, 2020
By Gary Pearce
Just before triggering a bitter battle over gun rights this month, the Virginia legislature quietly passed a measure on women’s rights – the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The vote recalls a bitter battle in North Carolina over ERA more than 40 years ago. That battle presaged today’s polarized politics and culture wars. It raised concerns that persist today about gender and economic inequality.
With Virginia’s vote, ERA has passed in 38 states. That’s the three-fourths required for ratification. But Congress set a 1982 deadline for ratification, so the amendment is in legal limbo for now.
First proposed in 1923, ERA was passed by Congress in 1972. By 1977, it had passed in 35 states.
North Carolina became a crucial battleground. A bipartisan coalition of politically active women championed ratification. In 1973, 1,000 backers gathered in Durham to launch North Carolinians United for ERA. One of their leaders was Martha McKay, who got in politics with Governor Terry Sanford.
Opponents organized North Carolinians Against ERA. Their leader was Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois, who was campaigning around the country against ERA. They recruited two prominent Tar Heels: former Senator Sam Ervin and state Chief Justice Susie Sharp.
Before he famously chaired the Senate Watergate Committee, Ervin was best known as an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation. Sharp was the first woman on the bench, but she was no supporter of ERA.
In 1977, Ervin and Schlafly spoke at a Dorton Arena rally jammed with 1,500 opponents, many from fundamentalist churches in rural parts of the state. They wore red “Stop ERA” stickers.
Supporters, who wore green ERA stickers, organized their own rallies around the state. Actor Alan Alda highlighted one event.
Supporters said ERA was needed to end discrimination against women in matters like divorce, property and employment. The amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Opponents said the language was too open to interpretation by judges. They said unintended consequences would jeopardize women and rip apart the fabric of society. Women might have to serve in the military and share bathrooms with men.
The battle came to a head in 1979. Lobbying was intense at the legislature. One member hid in the legislative chapel to avoid Betty McCain, an ERA supporter and state Democratic Party chair. The irrepressible McCain found him crouching behind a pew.
Governor Jim Hunt endorsed ERA in his State of the State speech. House Speaker Carl Stewart, a progressive Democrat from Gastonia, supported it. ERA passed the House 66-51.
But the Senate was dominated by conservative men from rural areas, Democrats in those days. Crusty, chain-smoking Lt. Governor Jimmy Green, a Democrat, was against it; he was against most anything Hunt was for.
A crucial vote was Senator R.C. Soles, a Democrat from Tabor City. Hunt pushed for his support, and Soles said he would decide over the weekend.
When he came back to Raleigh Monday, he voted no. His excuse was that his mother opposed it.
ERA lost 26-24. Its momentum stalled nationally.
In the years after the setback, ERA supporters focused on changing laws one by one to ensure equal rights and protections for women on issues including divorce, equitable distribution of marital property and domestic violence. Always, a prime concern was the pay gap between men and women.
Whatever happens now with ERA, the issues it raised – and the battle lines it drew – aren’t going away.