ERA Ratification in North Dakota: The Opening Act
Jan 2nd, 2007 @ 10:42 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
Someone recently asked me to write about being an advocate in North Dakota for ratification of the proposed U.S. Constitutional Equal Rights Amendment. I thought you might be interested, too.
The women who understood politics in 1973 told us Betty Litten would be the key. Betty would take a position after the legislative hearing on ratification of the Amendment. Husband C. Warner Litten of Fargo, Senate majority leader, would strongly influence the vote, either way.
"We" were a motley crew of ages, geographies, and stations in life, ranging from political novices to state and national leaders in both parties. Most were women, but not all. And not all women were with us. I recall debating Lupe Barbere of Bismarck at a meeting of the NDSU Veterans Club. She taught me to respect the views of those with whom I strongly disagreed.
At a time when "feminist" and "bra-burner" were synonyms in the minds of many, we quickly became a family pursuing a noble cause.
The legislature's joint committee met in the large hearing room. I was to speak first, followed by about eight other proponents. I was 28 and terrified. Then the opponents, led by prominent conservative Phyllis Schlafly and her husband Fred from Illinois.
With far more information than time would allow, I had made a stack of index cards and kept reshuffling them during the preceding weeks in search of the most effective selection and sequence. I was first to arrive at the hearing room, where I continued to shuffle. Next to arrive were Phyllis and Fred. Oddly, in that huge empty room they chose to sit just one chair away from me.
They proceeded to discuss their strategy at length and in detail. Although Phyllis was the driving force, Fred would be speaking, probably on the theory that legislators would be more receptive to a man.
As they conversed, I quietly selected and shuffled accordingly. By the time the room filled and then overflowed, I was prepared to rebut all of Fred's points before he would have a chance to make them.
The chairman gaveled the hearing to order and called for the proponents to testify. Before I could twitch, Fred jumped out of his seat with a large stack of books in his arms. With many pairs of wondering eyes fixed on him, Fred placed the stack next to the podium and, gesturing as he introduced himself, swept them all onto the floor.
Responding to the chair's question, Fred said he was an opponent and was told to wait his turn. After he gathered up his things again, I went to the podium and delivered my carefully selected series of points.
Every speaker on our side was better than the last, it seemed. But the opponents recovered to some extent with arguments based largely on fear and male superiority. There was no telling how these (almost entirely male) legislators might respond. My spirits soared when I went into the hallway and saw Betty Litten surrounded by my new family, eagerly discussing next steps.
After more hearings and much lobbying, we lost by one vote that year. As I recall, somebody called for the vote unexpectedly while a proponent was at the dentist. In 1975, it passed by one vote. Thirty-five states ratified – not enough to change the Constitution. Yet.