A new wave of Black women are leading the fight for the ERA
(The Hill) — Black women in Congress — specifically Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — are taking the lead in trying to revive the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to guarantee equal rights for all Americans regardless of gender.
The ERA, a subject of furious debate a half-century ago, would be the 28th amendment to the Constitution if affirmed by Congress. Already, 38 states have ratified the amendment, and 27 states have their own ERAs in their state constitutions.
Much has changed since the battles over the ERA first began, but the leadership of Black women has been a constant.
“Black women have always been leaders of the fight to enshrine equality in our nation’s constitution, but we haven’t always been in the headlines for leading that work,” Bush noted in remarks outside the Capitol this week.
She and Pressley are co-chairing the newly founded Congressional Caucus for the Equal Rights Amendment and continuing a long pattern of Black women advocating for equal rights — even when they themselves were often left out of the history books.
“The early Black women intellectuals and activists didn’t get a lot of attention because there was sexism and patriarchal thinking in Black communities and racism in white communities,” said Sharon Harley, a historian and professor of Black women’s labor history and racial and gender politics at the University of Maryland.
Some of the most prominent women involved in the fight for gender equality go back to the 1800s when abolitionists and suffragettes like Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth spearheaded the fight for racial and gender equality for Black women.
“When you look at these women, what you see are patterns of activist resistance,” Harley said. “Black women have been critical to progressive thinking, progressive activism, and there’s a long history of Black women’s engagement in suffrage paralleled by both sexism and racism.”
“When Black women tell their story … it’s a universal story of oppression, economic injustice and the like,” Harley continued. “Their story resonates with other groups, men and women, but they’re often telling a story that I think maybe some Caucasian women may be reluctant to tell, reluctant to admit, but it resonates. They’re talking about sexual violence and the abuse of the Black female body. This is something that is universal.”
But that doesn’t mean Black women’s experiences were often honored, in part due to a conflict of interest between white feminism and what professor Nadia E. Brown calls Black feminist pedagogy.
“Black feminist epistemology of knowing the world and a pedagogy of teaching the world about the world have always centered on the combination of not being able to fight racism or sexism, or any other forms of oppression like classism or heterosexism; they’ve always had to do them in tandem,” said Brown, chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and affiliate in the African American Studies program at Georgetown University.
Black feminists would often point out that talking about gendered wrongs doesn’t always address racialized wrongs, Brown added, leading to tensions between white suffragists and Black suffragists.
When Black men won the right to vote in 1870, Black women were told there was no room for them in the suffrage movement, and white suffragists began to use a racialized fear-based agenda to garner support.
“A particular tactic that white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony used to ensure that they’ll get southerners on board with women’s suffrage was to denigrate universal male suffrage by saying that Black men who are uneducated are going to rape and pillage communities if you give them the right to vote,” Brown explained. “They’re pitting women’s interests against racialized interests.”
This agenda would continue throughout the 1900s as women’s rights advocates organized and marched. In 1913, the National American Woman Suffrage Association planned a march on Washington in the name of women’s suffrage. Organized by Alice Paul, a young, white, college-educated Quaker, the original plan was to exclude Black suffragists before allowing them to march — segregated — at the very end of the parade.
Despite this history of exclusion, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) told advocates and reporters outside the Capitol this week that Black women never gave up.
In the 1970s, Black women like Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, former Rep. Barbara Jordan, scholar and activist Pauli Murray, and lawyer Florynce Kennedy shared personal experiences of battling racism and sexism as Black women to express their support for the 28th Amendment.
As a freshman in congress, Chisholm immediately threw her support behind the ERA after former Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.) introduced the bill. Chisholm’s landmark “For the Equal Rights Amendment” highlighted how the ERA would apply to due process, criminal sentencing, jury duty and labor laws.
“When men and women are prevented from recognizing one another’s essential humanity by sexual prejudices, nourished by legal as well as social institutions, society as a whole remains less than it could otherwise become,” Chisholm said.
The work of these women has been cited across the nation as other Black women have continued to lead the fight for the ERA.
In 2017, Nevada ratified the ERA under the primary sponsorship of State Sen. Pat Spearman. Following Spearman’s lead, Illinois State Rep. Juliana Stratton spoke extensively on the House floor in favor of ERA ratification, which the state finally ratified in May 2018. Stratton went on to become the first African American elected Lieutenant Governor of the state.
And in 2020, then-state Sen. Jennifer McClellan led the Virginia legislature to become the 38th state to ratify the ERA, paving the way for Pressley to unveil a bicameral, joint resolution to affirm the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment earlier this year.
Today, many of the women involved in the ERA Caucus — including vice chairs Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.), McClellan and Lee — are women of color.
“I thank God that Black women, even when they’re made to stand in the back, lead from the front every step of the way, because without that intersectional, bold, tenacious fight, we wouldn’t be where we are now, even as we recognize that we have still yet further to go,” Lee said this week.
Still, Brown, professor at Georgetown University, cautions against focusing too much on the caucus’s racial makeup or even the gender of some of the leaders of the caucus.
“It might have unintended impacts falling on deaf ears of people who willfully think talking about race or racism as divisive, without thinking about [talking of] race and racism as an opportunity to strengthen our union and to make the United States live up to the potentiality of a true multiracial democracy,” Brown said.
Women’s caucuses are also sometimes fraught, Brown added, because they’re not always bipartisan and it becomes a lot harder to accomplish goals.
But Brown remains cautiously optimistic of the caucus’s efforts. If the ERA is passed, she said, it would open the door to offering protections against things like pregnancy discrimination, hair style discrimination, reproductive health care and pay discrimination, all of which disproportionately affect Black and brown women.
“This is not a thing of the past. This is not the fight of the past. This is a fight for the present,” Pressley said this week. “I look forward to the day when calendars will say ‘And on this day in history, the ERA caucus was established,’ but I really look forward to the day when our calendars will say ‘On this day in history, the ERA was passed.’