Maternity Leave and the ERA


Gloria Steinem stood before congress in 1970 during the Equal Rights Amendment hearings to advocate for the advancement of the status of women saying:

I hope this committee will hear the personal, daily injustices suffered by many women—professionals and day laborers, women housebound by welfare as well as by suburbia. We have all been silent for too long. But we won’t be silent anymore.

For her full text click here.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first was proposed soon after women gained the right to vote in 1920. Because women’s suffrage required a constitutional amendment, and it had been achieved, it also seemed within reach to pass another amendment to further the equality of women even more. Congress began hearings on the amendment in 1923, but it faced a lot of opposition and divided women with different perspectives on how to achieve true equality.

Decades later in the 1960’s the National Organization for Women made the ERA a top priority and it regained a voice and hope for passage as an amendment. Although the amendment failed again, the ideas show important movements of thought at the time. Steinem’s speech highlights some of those main ideas. Below are some excerpts:

The truth is that all our problems stem from the same sex based myths. We may appear before you as white radicals or the middle-aged middle class or black soul sisters, but we are all sisters in fighting against these outdated myths. Like racial myths, they have been reflected in our laws. Let me list a few.

That woman are biologically inferior to men. In fact, an equally good case can be made for the reverse. Women live longer than men, even when the men are not subject to business pressures. Women survived Nazi concentration camps better, keep cooler heads in emergencies currently studied by disaster-researchers, are protected against heart attacks by their female sex hormones, and are so much more durable at every stage of life that nature must conceive 20 to 50 percent more males in order to keep the balance going.

Man’s hunting activities are forever being pointed to as tribal proof of superiority. But while he was hunting, women built houses, tilled the fields, developed animal husbandry, and perfected language. Men, being all alone in the bush, often developed into a creature as strong as women, fleeter of foot, but not very bright…

Another myth, that women are already treated equally in this society. I am sure there has been ample testimony to prove that equal pay for equal work, equal chance for advancement, and equal training or encouragement is obscenely scarce in every field, even those—like food and fashion industries—that are supposedly “feminine.”

A deeper result of social and legal injustice, however, is what sociologists refer to as “Internalized Aggression.” Victims of aggression absorb the myth of their own inferiority, and come to believe that their group is in fact second class. Even when they themselves realize they are not second class, they may still think their group is, thus the tendency to be the only Jew in the club, the only black woman on the block, the only woman in the office.

Women suffer this second class treatment from the moment they are born. They are expected to be, rather than achieve, to function biologically rather than learn…

Another myth, that American women hold great economic power. Fifty-one percent of all shareholders in this country are women. That is a favorite male-chauvinist statistic. However, the number of shares they hold is so small that the total is only 18 percent of all the shares. Even those holdings are often controlled by men.

Similarly, only 5 percent of all the people in the country who receive $10,000 a year or more, earned or otherwise, are women. And that includes the famous rich widows.

The constantly repeated myth of our economic power seems less testimony to our real power than to the resentment of what little power we do have.

Another myth, that children must have full-time mothers. American mothers spend more time with their homes and children than those of any other society we know about. In the past, joint families, servants, a prevalent system in which grandparents raised the children, or family field work in the agrarian systems—all these factors contributed more to child care than the labor-saving devices of which we are so proud.

The truth is that most American children seem to be suffering from too much mother, and too little father. Part of the program of Women’s Liberation is a return of fathers to their children. If laws permit women equal work and pay opportunities, men will then be relieved of their role as sole breadwinner. Fewer ulcers, fewer hours of meaningless work, equal responsibility for his own children: these are a few of the reasons that Women’s Liberation is Men’s Liberation too.

These ideas show some of the complexity within the women’s movement for equality that makes maternity leave policies difficult to navigate when there is a push for women to get equal treatment in the work place.

The Equal Rights Amendment states:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

For states who rejected the ERA like Utah did, one argument was that the amendment was too vague and people were unclear about what this would mean for traditional families and gender roles. The LDS Church actively rejected the amendment and encouraged members to vote against it which largely impacted the Utah decision. For those who supported special treatment in the workplace such as maternity leave for women, it was unclear if this could be used against such policies.

This amendment fell short of 3 states’ support in order to be ratified. Below is a map from the Equal Rights Amendment: Unfinished Business for the Constitution home page showing clearly which states did and did not support the amendment. era-state-map

The controversy over the ERA had continued. As this active website for the ERA shows, there is still active support for the amendment. One the web page they even have ERA metal bracelets for sale with the pitch: “Wear your ERA support on your sleeve!  Order the stylish and collectible ERA solidarity bracelet designed for the 2014 We Are Woman Constitution Day Rally. Look good while you’re letting everyone know the ERA is alive and well.” However, since the amendment has yet to be passed, despite the ERA website’s claims, there is still a lack of sufficient support for it.


Cannon, Brian Q., and Jessie L. Embry, eds. Utah in the Twentieth Century. University Press of Colorado, 2009. (218-219)

Class Notes.




3 thoughts on “Maternity Leave and the ERA

  1. Women of the LDS were strong proponents of suffrage and getting women involved in politics? So what changed between suffrage and the ERA? What were some of the LDS Church’s reasons for opposing the ERA? Also, how common was maternity leave at this time? Did many women have access to it and were afraid that they would lose it with the ERA?


  2. Great informative article. I think it’s so interesting how things as simple as maternity leave in the workplace can become a source of conflict within America as a result of the ERA. Would the ERA necessarily bring significant changes to maternity? And would women have a say in crafting the legislation? I think it is imperative that the ERA conversation not be completely disregarded in modern society, especially concerning maternity leave.


  3. The ERA was to help free men too not just women which is a point that is often forgotten. In avocating for maternity leave these women were trying to make life better for working women. Since the ERA says that women and men are equal and laws should be so was paternity leave ever brought up? Was the threat of this a reason why some opposed it or was just giving mothers time off for giving birth enough? What was the support for maternity leave like during the time of the ERA?


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