Advocates plan birthday gift for the 19th Amendment: The ERA

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In this 1920s photo, Alice Paul sews a suffrage flag in Washington. One hundred years ago, American women gained the guaranteed right to vote, with ratification of the 19th Amendment. But to suffragist Paul, the vote wasn't enough. She equipped herself with a law degree and got to work writing another constitutional amendment one that would guarantee women equal rights under the law. (National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress via AP)

It was a huge step forward for American women when, exactly 100 years ago, they finally gained the guaranteed right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment. But to Alice Paul, the step wasn't nearly large enough.

Paul, a suffragist who'd waged hunger strikes and endured forced feedings in jail so women could get the vote, equipped herself with a law degree and got to work writing another constitutional amendment — one that would guarantee women equal rights under the law. She introduced that amendment — now known as the Equal Rights Amendment — in Congress in 1923.

Of course, the ERA, finally passed by Congress in 1972 only to stumble during a circuitous ratification effort, still isn’t law. But feminist leaders are determined to change that now. And they feel cultural momentum is on their side for another victory nearly a century in the making.

“To call them suffragists, it sounds like they only wanted one thing," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, of Paul and her colleagues. “The vote was an important step, but they didn’t believe the vote alone would give women full equality.”

“Basically, we want to finish this,” she says. “The women’s movement is not giving up until this thing is in the Constitution, period.”

It was a joyful moment for Smeal and others when, in January, the Virginia state Legislature, under newly Democratic control, approved the amendment — becoming the crucial 38th state to cross the three-quarters threshold for ratification. But the move hardly resolved the issue, which will likely be decided in the courts over thorny procedural questions.

Still, for advocates, the Virginia vote was more than symbolic. “It’s a new day,” Smeal says. She and other activists are pinning their hopes on a Democratic presidential victory in November; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, she says, are strong supporters of the amendment. The key change, she says, will be if the Democrats can take over the Senate, where current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed opposition to it.

ERA advocates were deeply disappointed, though, when in February, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she thought the entire state ratification process should be started over, dealing current efforts a potentially serious blow.