On June 30, 1982, the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, Carolyn McGowan was handed a wooden tombstone carved with the words “RIP ERA.”
It was a joke, courtesy of an ERA opponent in Webb City, where she was living when she served as local chair for the Missouri Coalition on Equal Rights. And it stung.
The Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined protection against sex discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, was three states short of the 38 needed for ratification and seemingly dead in its tracks. It didn’t even come up for a vote in the Missouri Legislature that year.
The tombstone hangs in the dance studio McGowan owns. She explains the importance of the ERA to visitors, some who either knew nothing about it or assumed it had already passed.
Now, at age 77, McGowan still dreams of having the last laugh.
“I think equality always wins,” she said.
Though the deadline has long passed, the fight for the ERA has been re-energized, drawing new life, advocates say, from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. With ratification by legislatures in Nevada and Illinois over the last two years, it now remains one short of the required three-quarters of the states needed to become an amendment. Missouri is one of 13 that could tip the balance.
But Missouri, birthplace of the ERA’s most powerful opponent, the late Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, is likely no closer to ratification than it was 37 years ago.
Many of the arguments Schlafly and her allies used to prevail in 1982 hold the same power in state politics today, chief among them that ratification would strengthen the right to abortion. Under consideration in this year’s legislative session are some of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the country.
But with less than a month left before adjournment, ERA proponents still have hope.
A Senate resolution urging ratification, sponsored by state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, had a hearing April 2 in the Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee. But it won’t come up for a vote unless Schupp can persuade four of the seven senators on the committee - all but one of them men - to pass it on to the full Senate.
“I have talked to Sen. Schupp and asked her to talk to the committee and figure out where the vote count is,” state Sen. Caleb Rowden, the committee chair and Senate majority floor leader, told reporters Thursday. “So we’ll see.”
As of Thursday, Schupp said she thinks she needs one more vote.
At the hearing, national advocates of the ERA contended with one of Jefferson City’s most powerful lawmakers: Senate President Pro-Tem Dave Schatz.
It didn’t go well for amendment supporters.
The hearing opened with testimony from filmmakers Kamala Lopez and Natalie White, whose 2016 documentary, Equal Means Equal, brought renewed national attention to the movement.
“If you are truly a Christian, you vote yes on the ERA,” White, who identified as a Christian, said during her testimony. “And if you vote `no,’ stop calling yourself a Christian.”
“What would Jesus do on abortion?” an irate Schatz said. “The majority of this is about abortion. I know what Jesus would do in this realm.”
Ping pong, not basketball
Growing up in Lee’s Summit in the 1950s, McGowan would listen to her grandmother’s stories of being a suffragette. She recalled her amazement that it was 1921 before women were granted the right to vote.
“My grandmother told me, ‘You must continue the rest of your life to fight for equality for women,’ ” McGowan said.
In high school she was a standout basketball player. But with no women’s team, she competed instead for the state ping pong championship.
When McGowan went to the University of Kansas, women leaving campus for the weekend, but not men, had to sign out. As a sixth-grade teacher with a master’s degree, she watched less accomplished men make many times what she was paid.
As a city council member in Webb City, one disagreement with a male colleague ended in him calling her “sugar.” Looking down at her hands, she realized that she’d clenched a fist.
“I almost hit him,” she said. By then, McGowan was all in for the ERA.
When Kansas passed the ERA in March 1972, less than a year after it was first sent to the states, McGowan thought Missouri would soon follow. She didn’t count on Phyllis Schlafly.
She was already a force in conservative politics. The Radcliffe-educated St. Louis native became a best-selling author in 1964 with the publication of “A Choice Not an Echo,” a book that called out the GOP’s eastern elite and was credited with helping boost Sen. Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination.
Schlafly became one the ERA’s most vociferous critics, asserting that it would break down the traditional family unit, force women to get jobs and subject them to the draft.
In 1973, when it was first introduced in Missouri, the ERA enjoyed the backing of Republican Gov. Kit Bond and the House speaker and majority floor leader, both Democrats. A House subcommittee held sex discrimination hearings in eight Missouri counties, and in later years the Missouri Coalition for Equal Rights, along with powerful union groups, worked to fund-raise, write letters and lobby, according to McGowan.
But the measure had as much bipartisan opposition as it did support.
Under pressure from Schlafly acolytes, the only female member of the Missouri Senate at the time, Mary Gant, a Kansas City Democrat, opposed the amendment. Her position gave political cover to other members, who were able to block it from coming to the floor or vote it down if it did.
Twenty-two states ratified the ERA within that first year. But the movement stalled at 35 states before the original deadline of 1979, a near-miss largely credited to Schlafly’s advocacy. Five states later passed resolutions rescinding their ratification, although legal scholars say it is not clear such rescissions are valid.
Even after Congress extended the deadline to 1982, proponents were unsuccessful.
While it langushed, Schlafly continued as a powerhouse. In 2016, just weeks before her death at the age of 92, she was a Missouri delegate to the Republican National Convention and an outspoken supporter of nominee Donald Trump.
‘Once they understand, they are on board’
ERA proponents say the issue now has a new moment, powered by #MeToo and #TimesUp, which have elevated awareness of sexual harassment and assault faced by women.
Organizers of Project 28 Missouri, named for the goal of making ERA the 28th Amendment, say they have built a coalition of at least 50 groups across the state with representatives at all of the University of Missouri system colleges.
“Young women feel awakened and that feeling’s not going to change,” campaign coordinator Erica Benson said.
Yet, educating young people has been one of the movement’s biggest challenges. Benson, 34, a Kansas City-area teacher, said many of her students believe the ERA was already ratified or had not heard of its complicated history.
“Once they understand, they are on board,” Benson said.
A coalition-hosted rally last week in Jefferson City drew just 60 supporters, ranging in age from high school to veterans of the 1970s and 1980s ERA campaigns. Benson blamed the low attendance on scheduling the rally for Thursday morning, based on when legislators were in session.
One speaker reminded the crowd that Schlafly - the name was booed - wasn’t Missouri’s only tie to the ERA.
Michigan Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, who was pivotal in pushing the ERA through Congress in 1972, was born and raised in Pierce City and graduated from the University of Missouri, according to Sherry Buchanan.
“She has been called by some - this Missouri native - the mother of the ERA,” Buchanan, of Joplin, said. “There are others who can share that name but I’m very proud of that designation.”
McGowan, who had run for state senate as a Democrat last year in the district that covers Jasper and Newton counties, said she was asked by the coalition to focus her efforts on the ERA once she lost the race.
She didn’t hesitate.
In recent years, bills to recommend ERA ratification have been filed regularly in the General Assembly, but last year was the first time one received a hearing.
This April’s hearing explored several major questions surrounding the amendment’s prospects. How binding is the 1982 deadline? Don’t women already have protection through the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause? What would its actual effect be?
Schupp noted that constitutional amendments have been adopted far past their introduction date. The last amendment added to the Constitution, the 27th, which says that any pay raises Congress may vote itself are effective only after the next election, was introduced in 1789 and ratified in 1992. It did not, however, have the 7-year expiration date established by Congress that the ERA did.
And while the courts began to construe the 14th Amendment in the ‘70s to prohibit sex discrimination, it doesn’t guarantee equality under the law, according to proponents.
“When we are not recognized as equals under the Constitution, we are subject to the political whim or the inclination of those in power,” Schupp said.
In the end, abortion casts the longest shadow over the ERA debate.
In the hearing, Susan Klein of Missouri Right to Life and Noreen McCann of the Missouri chapter of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles told committee members that if they didn’t believe the ERA strengthened abortion rights, pro-choice groups did.
Klein quoted a March fund-raising email from NARAL to prove her point: “With its ratification, the ERA would reinforce the constitutional right to abortion by clarifying that the sexes have equal rights which would require judges to strike down anti-abortion laws because they violate both the constitutional right to privacy and sexual equality.”
Klein mentioned that pro-choice advocates cited similar language to the ERA that states had placed within their constitutions to challenge abortion restrictions and funding, specifically citing a 1998 New Mexico Supreme Court case.
Schupp called the line of thought “fear-mongering.”
She said that of the 12 states that have had their abortion laws challenged on the grounds of the state ERA, the only case in which pro-choice advocates were successful was New Mexico. Judges ruled that state Medicaid was required to fund medically necessary abortions and declined to weigh in on whether reproductive choice was an inherent right because of the state ERA.
If the ERA survives legal challenges post-ratification, there isn’t a consensus on what its long term impact would be.
But the immediate effect would be symbolic. Hugely so, say supporters.
“We have a chance to send a message to 50.9 percent of the state,” Schupp said, referring to Missouri’s female majority.
The year the ERA seemingly died, McGowan left teaching and started a performing arts preschool. Her thought: If she owned a business, no one can discriminate against her.
She was wrong. Women weren’t invited to be part of the local chamber of commerce or local chapter of Rotary International.
When she became the Webb City mayor in 1984, the men on the city council proposed a 3 percent raise for male employees, but not for the female employees. They told McGowan that the male city employees needed to support a whole family and needed the raise.
McGowan had to circulate a petition to secure the same raise for the women.
“I’ve seen huge changes in my lifetime,” she said, “but they are not protected in the United States Constitution.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the number of states needed to ratify the ERA. It is three-fourths of the states, or 38.