The Equal Rights Amendment and the Rise of Emancipationism

I am thrilled to see my article, “The Equal Rights Amendment and the Rise of Emancipationism,” published in Frontiers‘ special issue on the ERA. My article is based on a paper that I presented at “The ERA in the 21st Century” conference in November 2013. It also builds upon two chapters from my PhD dissertation, which I successfully defended in March 2014.

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Historical Research: Philosophy and Practice

To borrow from Joyce Appleby, I consider myself a practitioner of “practical realism.” I appreciate post-modern theorists’ suspicion of supposed essential universal truths; however, I still strive to obtain a degree of professional objectivity in my reconstructions and interpretations of the past.

Joyce Appleby
Joyce Appleby

In general, I investigate the interplay between language and ideas, particularly in the realms of religion, politics, gender, and the law. My current research examines the dueling civic ideologies embedded in the conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in order to shed light on the gendered ideas that have influenced social initiatives, political positions, and legal philosophies. In total, my work seeks to explore how the construction of ideas through language helps to create communal identities and values.

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Zotero is an invaluable resource for anyone who is organizing and analyzing research.

Even though I first encountered Zotero during a graduate-level digital history course, it took me another year to fully realize its benefits. When I began conducting research for my dissertation I became completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume and diversity of sources that I had to collect and examine. After three trips to the manuscript room at the Library of Congress produced scattered and indecipherable research notes, I decided to return to my Zotero account. This was probably one of the smartest decisions I ever made as a PhD student, as, to put it simply, I would not have finished my dissertation without the help of Zotero.

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Revising Dissertation into Book–Project Overview

Amending Nature: The Equal Rights Amendment and Gendered Citizenship in America, 1920-1963

This study illuminates the ideological contours of the conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from 1920 to 1963. Through a careful analysis of correspondence, public and private utterances, congressional testimonies, and several court cases this study unearths the dueling civic ideologies rooted in the struggle: emancipationism and protectionism. Emancipationists supported the ERA as the necessary conclusion to the Nineteenth Amendment. In short, emancipationists believed that the ERA fulfilled America’s political aspirations, as the amendment would ensure that men and women citizens enjoyed the same basic legal standard. In contrast, protectionists opposed the ERA as a threat to sex-based legal distinctions. From the protectionist perspective, American society rightly affirmed the separate roles of men and women citizens by differentiation in law. In the end, emancipationists and protectionists held different interpretations of the relationship between gender and citizenship. Emancipationists insisted that American political ideals upheld the right of men and women to participate as citizens on the same terms while protectionists maintained that true sexual equity demanded that the law be free to treat citizens differently on account of sex.[i] 

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This dissertation uncovers the competing civic ideologies embedded in the conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from 1920 to 1963.It identifies these ideologies as emancipationism and protectionism. Emancipationists supported the ERA as the logical and, indeed, necessary outcome of the Nineteenth Amendment. Protectionists, in contrast, opposed the ERA as a threat to sex-based legal distinctions. Through an examination of over-forty different manuscript collections as well as an array of government documents, especially the often-overlooked congressional hearings on the amendment, this study shows that men and women politicians, intellectuals, labor activists, reformers, and government officials all participated in the original ERA conflict. Moreover, the participants not only argued over women’s status; they also contested the nature of American citizenship.

Above all, this study contends that the original ERA conflict created America’s gendered citizenship. In short, the Nineteenth Amendment profoundly changed women’s relationship to the state; however, disparities in men and women’s positions persist even to this day, because protectionists modernized the justification for sex-based differential treatment. To this end, protectionists successfully advanced the contention that their position provided men and women citizens with the appropriate level of equality, which also preserved women’s traditional right to special protection. Ultimately, protectionists effectively refashioned full citizenship status to include separate standards for men and women citizens, but their triumph also created dual meanings for American citizenship that negated the doctrine of universal rights and responsibilities.

-Rebecca DeWolf, Ph.D.