Mrs. America: Rosalynn Carter and the ERA

By Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a direct descendant of the 19th Amendment which would guarantee women the same rights and privileges as men. Written by Alice Paul in 1923, the fight to ratify the ERA has been ongoing for the last 97 years. 

Women Marching in Suffragette Parade, Washington, DC by U.S. Information Agency. (8/24/1982 - 10/1/1999) (Most Recent)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The 19th Amendment: a Brief History

The ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, guaranteed women the right to vote and gave a voice to all in American elections. Some of the suffragists who fought tirelessly for women’s right to vote left political life while others continued to fight for social justices. Women politicians took up the causes of the disenfranchised such as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922 which failed to pass, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act in 1921 which did pass, and the introduction of a bill to guarantee full legal equality to men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, which remains unratified. 

Opening reception of the National Women's Conference 1977 (1977-11-19/1977-11-19) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Alice Paul & the ERA 

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was the brainchild of Alice Stokes Paul (1885-1977), a suffragist and key player in the passage of the 19th Amendment. The act, which was authored by Paul in 1923 and introduced by the National Women’s political party, would guarantee absolute equality for men and women throughout the United States and was originally called the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” after the activist, abolitionist, and social reformer who helped launch the women’s rights movement. Renamed in 1943 as the Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until it passed in 1972 when it went to the states for ratification. 22 of the necessary 38 states ratified the amendment the first year. Opposition groups, many of which included women just as they had before the 19th Amendment, began to form, still divided due to race, class, political beliefs, and religious beliefs. 

Rosalynn Carter speaks to an audience of ERA supporters during the National Women's Conference. (1977-11-19/1977-11-19) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The ERA and the Carter Administration

The fate of the amendment was in jeopardy after the seven-year deadline that was placed on the ratification process by Congress came to a near end. In the following years 1973 only saw eight ratifications, 1974 had three, and 1975 only saw one. In 1976, no states ratified the amendment. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter took up the fight to help the passage of the ERA. Although a president cannot veto a constitutional amendment and he is not required to sign approval, on October 20, 1978, President Carter signed the Extension of the Equal Rights Amendment Ratification (H.J.Res.638) as a gesture to show how strongly he felt about it and how much he supported extending the ratification time limit to 1982.

Rosalynn Carter with Betty Ford and Ladybird Johnson at the National Women's Conference. (1977-11-19/1977-11-19) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Hey Ladies!

First Lady Rosalynn Carter spoke at the opening reception of the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas on November 18, 1977. Joining Mrs. Carter and speaking at the opening reception were former First Ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson along with activists Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Barbara Jordan, Liz Carpenter, Jean Stapleton, and Maya Angelou. In 1975 President Gerald Ford issued an executive order to create the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year to promote equality between men and women and dedicated $5 million for state and national conferences. In 1977 President Carter appointed Bella Abzug to head a new committee which culminated in the National Women’s Conference.

July 20, 1978 Memo (Page 1)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Meet Midge Costanza

July 20, 1978, Memo to Departments on ERA efforts naming President Carter’s assistant, Midge Costanza, as the lead organizer on advancing the efforts of women’s issues. 

July 20, 1978 Memo (Page 2)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Memo from the President

Page 2 of the July 20, 1978, Memo to Department heads from President Carter

Midge Costanza (1977-01/1977-01) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Wonder Woman

Midge Costanza was an advocate for gay and women's rights and served as the Assistant to the President for Public Liaison in the Office for Public Liaison. Costanza was the first woman to hold the position. 

ERA scarfJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Showing Spirit

This scarf was given to Midge Constanza at a rally in Washington D.C. July 8, 1978, to give to the First Lady. Made by Rita J. Pynoos, the red screen printed silk scarf reads, “ERA/ Rosalynn.” 

ERA scarfJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Equality Under the Law

This blue silk ERA scarf was made by Carolyn Sexton Johnson and given to Mrs. Carter. This scarf depicts a blue background with white male symbols combined with red female symbols and reads. “Equality Under the Law/ Support ERA.” 

Regan ERA HandoutJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Reagan's Stance on the ERA

Ronald Reagan’s stance on the ERA was printed on an ERA handout. As with other opposition groups, Reagan’s opposition was based on conservative beliefs that did not want the possibility of women being subjected to the draft in a potential time of national emergency. He also cited the Constitution which does not explicitly state women are not equal to men in his opposition to the ERA. 

Jimmy Carter Signing Extension of Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Ratification (1978-10-20/1978-10-20) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

ERA Extension

October 20, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signs the Extension of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Women's Equality DayJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter Declares Women's Equality Day

October 20, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signs the Extension of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Program for the Presidential Salute to the ERA (1979-10-23/1979-10-23)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

A Good Reception

October 23, 1979, the White House hosted a “Presidential Salute to the ERA” which drew more than 800 people to the White House in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter at ERA Reception (1 of 3) (1979-10-23/1979-10-23) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Drawing a Crowd

Mrs. Carter speaks to the crowd at the ERA Reception about the importance of the Equal Rights Amendment. October 23, 1979.

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter at ERA Reception (3 of 3) (1979-10-23/1979-10-23) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Full Support

Sharing a podium together, President Carter fully supported the ERA and the First Lady.

Rosalynn Carter speaks at White House ERA Reception. (1979-10-23/1979-10-23) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Girl Power

Joan Mondale and Lynda Byrd Robb cheer on Rosalynn Carter as she speaks at the ERA Reception. 

Meeting Agenda with First Lady and Sarah WeddingtonJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Meeting with the First Lady

Sarah Weddington's agenda for a December 1978 meeting with the First Lady includes the opposition strategy for groups against the ERA, the general position of the Carter Administration, problem areas, and possible areas that need help. 

Meeting Agenda with First Lady and Sarah WeddingtonJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Sarah Weddington's Agenda

Sarah Weddington, who represented "Jane Roe" in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, served in the Office of the Assistant to the President for Women’s Affairs’/Office of the Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.

Coalition of Labor Union Women CertificateJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Coalition of Labor Union Women

 This certificate from the Coalition of Labor Union Women Expressing Appreciation for Mrs. Carter's support of the ERA was presented to the First Lady in 1981. Pay equality was a critical area of contention for pro-ERA groups. In the 1970s women’s median wage incomes were 40%-50% of men’s wage incomes. 

Mrs. Carter at the Senate Wives Luncheon (1978-05-15/1978-05-15) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Senate Wives Luncheon

The First Lady hosted a dinner for the Senate Wives to garner their support for the ERA. Mrs. Carter adjusts the place settings before the event.

Book titled "Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives"Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Party Gifts

This book was a gift to each woman who attended the luncheon. "Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives,"  edited by Eve Merriam,  NY Dell Publishing Co., 1971, has a tan cover with a picture of a Victorian era girl on the front, contained in a purple velvet case that is embossed "Senate Ladies Luncheon/ The White House/ May 15, 1978/ Rosalynn Carter" in gold.

Senate Wives Luncheon (Program, pages 1 - 2) (1978-05-15/1978-05-15)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Get with the Program

This program outlines the events of the evening which included a skit from well-known actresses.

Performance during the Senate Wives Luncheon (1978-05-15/1978-05-15) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Who's that Girl?

Stage and film actresses Carol Kane, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Maureen Anderman portrayed women's rights advocates Eliza Southgate, Mother Mary Jones, and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw during the entertainment portion of the evening. 

The Alice Paul AwardJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The Alice Paul Award

The Alice Paul Award was presented to Mrs. Carter for her commitment to the ERA in 1980 by the Members of the Duval Women's Political Caucus, Jacksonville, FL.

Equal Rights Coalition of Utah Certificate of AchievementJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Showing Some Love

This Certificate of Achievement reads, "In appreciation of your consistent support and tireless efforts to ensure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment," to the President and Mrs. Carter from the Equal Rights Coalition of Utah, Utah Mormons and Friends for ERA, and Salt Lake Chapter National Organization for Women. This acknowledgement shows support for President and Mrs. Carter’s efforts from a historically political and religious conservative group. 

ERA PosterJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Well Said, Mr. President!

This poster bears a quote from President Carter and reads, "I do not believe my Daughter should have to have fewer rights than my sons.” “The Equal Rights Amendment/Equality of opportunity ERA Quality of Achievement". 

Women Appointees under the Carter AdministrationJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Women Appointees

This poster shows just a fraction of the Women Appointees under the Carter Administration.

President Carter’s efforts to advance the ERA (Page 2)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

That's a Fact!

A summary of President Carter’s efforts to advance the ERA, dated June 1980.

President Carter’s efforts to advance the ERA (Page 1)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

A Push for the ERA

A summary of President Carter’s efforts to advance the ERA, dated June 1980.

ERA ALERTJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Minority Report

This handbill dated August 1980 reads, “ERA ALERT,” and provides information for delegates and alternatives about Minority Report #10.

ERA SignJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

ERA at the DNC

Delegates to the 1980 DNC carried this turquoise sign which reads in full "ERA" and "Democratic National Convention 1980".

ERA Extension SigningJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Holding Pattern

Mrs. Carter signs the ERA Resolution, October 20, 1978. Despite the disputed extension of slightly more than three years and efforts from the Carter Administration, by June 30,1982, no additional states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. 

"Liberty Leading the People" posterJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Liberty and Justice for All!

Women continue to fight for equality, as did Geraldine Ferraro who was the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket. This poster reads, "Liberty/Mondale-Ferraro" The image depicts "Liberty Leading the People" by Delacroix with Geraldine Ferraro as Liberty holding the American flag while Walter Mondale is the man with the musket holding an ERA flag. 

National Women's Conference (1977-11-19/1977-11-19) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Carrying the Torch for the Future

While it failed to achieve ratification, women gradually achieved greater equality through legal victories that continued the effort to expand rights, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ultimately codified the right to vote for all women. To date, thirty-seven states have passed ERA bills. https://www.archives.gov/women/era 

Credits: Story

Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade, by Donald T. Critchlow, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005


https://www.archives.gov/women/era

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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