Pro-ERA activists rally at the Lincoln Memorial in October 1981.

Bettmann/Getty images


Common Core: RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.4

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.3, Civ.8, Civ.12, Civ.14, His.2, His.5

NCSS: Civic ideals and practices; Culture

5-Minute Guide to the ERA

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t specifically guarantee equality for women. Could a new push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment finally change that?

Elissa Malcohn

This ’70s-era pin urged passage of the ERA.

After decades on the shelf, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—a proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution—is back in the news. In the 1970s and early ’80s, women’s rights activists tried to win support for the measure, which would guarantee equal treatment of men and women.

The push for the amend­ment began in a time when discrimi­nation against women was wide­spread. American women were kept out of many prestigious jobs and were often denied bank loans to buy a house or a car.

Responding to the activists’ outcry, Congress approved the ERA in 1972. It later set a 10-year deadline for it to be ratified. But only 35 of the 38 states necessary for ratification had voted to approve it by 1982, so the amendment died.

Or did it?

In March 2017 and May 2018, Nevada and Illinois became the 36th and 37th states, respectively, to ratify the ERA. This means that only one more state needs to approve it to meet the constitu­tional require­ment of 38—and likely set up a legal battle over whether the amendment can be resurrected.

What exactly is the ERA, and why is it such a hot-button topic? Read on to learn more.

What the ERA Says

The Equal Rights Amendment contains three short sections. The most important is Section 1, which says: “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 gives Congress the power to enforce Section 1; Section 3 simply states that the ERA would officially take effect two years after the date of ratification.)


Percent of Americans who would support an amendment that specifically guarantees equal rights for men and women

SOURCE: DB5/Enso, 2016

Where It’s Been Ratified

In March 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA. Just 14 months later, Illinois became the 37th, leaving the proposed amendment only one state short of the constitutional requirement.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

How to Ratify an Amendment

It isn’t easy to change the U.S. Constitution. The process is so difficult that there have been only 27 amendments. Here’s how it is typically done:

First, two-thirds of both chambers of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) agree to propose an amendment.

Next, state legislatures vote on whether to pass the proposed amendment.

When at least three-fourths of the states’ legislatures (38 of the 50 states) have voted to approve the amendment, it becomes part of the Constitution—and the law of the land.


Percent of Americans who mistakenly believe that the Constitution specifically guarantees equal rights for men and women

SOURCE: DB5/Enso, 2016

Do We Still Need It?

Most Americans back the amendment, but some people don't think it's necessary. Society has changed greatly since Congress approved the ERA in 1972. Today, women increasingly hold powerful jobs in law, medicine, business, and other areas.

Many conservative groups oppose the ERA. They say it would mean the end of separate prisons for men and women, and would require women to serve in combat in numbers equal to men.

What Would Happen If a 38th State Were to Ratify the ERA?

Activists would lobby Congress to ignore the 10-year deadline. ERA supporters would probably point to the 27th Amendment, which was ratified in 1992. Congress approved it in 1789, but it took more than 200 years for enough states to ratify it. (The 27th Amendment had no time limit for ratification.) The recent ERA activity marks the first time a proposed amendment has won state approvals after a deadline. Getting the ERA enacted would likely involve a major struggle, including court challenges and a fight in Congress.

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