A New Breed of Amazons?

Did you know? The United States, to this day, lacks fundamental legislation that protects women from all forms of gender discrimination. One way women have tried to remedy that is by passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the constitution. Introduced in every Congress since 1923, it came very close to becoming law in the 1970s.

This spring I’m working on writing a museum exhibit about the ERA for the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, and I’ve been encountering all sorts of great source material.

Even during my first visit to the museum, I discovered a shocking piece of political paraphernalia dating from 1893. At first I thought “American Woman and Her Political Peers” was intended to portray the women fighting for equal rights as abnormal. Turns out it was made by a suffragette to show that women had, at that time, similar political rights as convicts, Native Americans, the retarded, and the insane. Clearly the suffragettes knew how to use media to their benefit.

One document that is fairly rare, and of particular importance to the exhibit is the report of the Washington State International Women’s Year Conference from 1977. Although Washington had voted to ratify the ERA in 1973, this conference was the site of a battle amongst women that impacted all of Washington’s women moving forward. The report is a fascinating read and meditate on how the more things change, the more things stay the same. Sobering.

It has been eye-opening learning about Phyllis Schlafly, and discovering how major a role she had in changing the ERA’s chances for success as the 1970s progressed. I’ve also enjoyed reading things like the infamous memo that claims the ERA will turn women into “a new breed of Amazons” or that it would lead to unisex bathrooms, which are fairly common now anyway. If you’re not very familiar with Phyllis, I encourage you to check her out, possibly here or here. She’s quite a piece of work.

Our exhibit will also have a television component, which I’m hoping will feature portrayals of women through the years. The other morning I did a little YouTube research, and without even trying I found a litany of cringeworthy commercials spanning the 1950s through today. Here’s a sample:

Just wait until the voiceover at the end…

I saw this one a lot right before Valentine’s Day. THIS YEAR!

Good grief! Here are some mid-century print ads that are also shocking in their blatancy. (“You mean a woman can open it?”)

Finally, since November I’ve been slowly working my way through The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. A bestseller in 1977, the story follows Everywoman Mira Ward through her childhood, schooling, marriage, childrearing, divorce, return to school, as she has a gradual feminist awakening. It’s classic second-wave feminism, and a great read despite some pages-long idealistic flights of fancy. Although I’m not sure the book will be terribly useful to the exhibit, it has certainly been a dynamic read.

One thing we’re hoping to do at the end of exhibit is give people the opportunity to share how gender inequality impacts their lives. Has gender inequality impacted you? If the ERA got sent to the states for ratification today, would you vote for it?

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