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“Do We Discard Protective Legislation for Women?”: Two Labor Union Officials Voice Opposition to the ERA

In the years following the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment extending voting rights to women, the National Woman’s Party, the radical wing of the suffrage movement, advocated passage of a constitutional amendment to make discrimination based on gender illegal. The first Congressional hearing on the equal rights amendment (ERA) was held in 1923. Many female reformers opposed the amendment in fear that it would end protective labor and health legislation designed to aid female workers and poverty-stricken mothers. A major divide, often class-based, emerged among women’s groups. While the National Woman’s Party and groups representing business and professional women continued to push for an ERA, passage was unlikely until the 1960s, when the revived women’s movement, especially the National Organization for Women (NOW), made the ERA priority. The 1960s and 1970s saw important legislation enacted to address sex discrimination in employment and education—most prominently, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act—and on March 22, 1972, Congress passed the ERA. The proposed amendment expired in 1982, however, with support from only 35 states—three short of the required 38 necessary for ratification. Strong grassroots opposition emerged in the southern and western sections of the country, led by anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schafly. Schlafly charged that the amendment would create a “unisex society” while weakening the family, maligning the homemaker, legitimizing homosexuality, and exposing girls to the military draft. In the following 1970 Senate hearing, two representatives of labor unions voiced opposition to the ERA, arguing that it would threaten protective legislation based on gender difference.


My name is Myra K. Wolfgang. I reside in the City of Detroit, State of Michigan, and am represented in this body by Senator Philip Hart. I am the Vice President of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union AFL-CIO and Secretary-Treasurer of its Detroit Local, No. 705. I am a member of the Michigan State Minimum Wage Board and I have served on the Mayor’s Committee of Human Relations. I am presently, a member of the Michigan Women’s Commission (the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women).

I am opposed to the enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment to our Constitution. I state my position after long and careful consideration in spite of the fact that we find sex prejudice parading in the cloth of tradition everywhere. We are aware that it is tailored to the patterns of ignorance and special interest.

The principle of equal pay for equal work is being violated throughout the breadth and length of this nation. Women are being discriminated against unjustly in hiring and in promotion. Our social security laws remain discriminatory. Equal access to our educational institutions is still denied women. Qualified women are, in the main, excluded from the policy making bodies of this nation from the Cabinet down to our County institutions.

Fully aware of all of the inequities visited upon the women of America, I still appear here today to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. I believe that the amendment is not only undemocratic and its effects will bring frustration and tragedy, but that, it will accomplish the exact opposite its proponents claim it will do. . . .

Until last week, I had many grave misgivings about the outcome of this legislation. I had seen the Equal Rights Amendment run through the House of Representatives like a herd of stampeded cattle on a discharge petition maneuver. Never have so few business and professional women been so effective and done such harm. The hysteria created by bra-burning and other freak antics is not a justification for the action taken by the House of Representatives, nor is the fear of political reprisal. Let me assure you the threat is not borne of reality. It must have been this same type of hysteria that created the conditions for the passage of the Volstead Act. But now that the dust has settled and we begin to look around at the damaged past, the damage present and the damage future, more seasoned hands seem to be in the saddle.

Even though I appear here before you in my various capacities, capacities not usually associated by chauvinistic males with philosophical legislative considerations, I want you to know the women of America are not unaware of what government is, what it means and what it should mean. We grow more aware daily. We know the theory around which our Constitution was conceived. Abigail Adams is not the only woman who had or has ideas about its structure, or about man’s predilection for tyranny in designing laws. Molly Pitcher knew that we threw off the yoke of oppression with these words “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” comma, not period, for she knew that the Declaration of Independence continued on to further define equal with “that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And Martha Wayles Jefferson knew that her husband in penning the Virginia Declaration of Rights, had written "that all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring safety."

Yes, Dolly Madison knew, as I know, that our Constitution was based upon the best of man’s thinking down through the ages. We know that the very foundation of all government worth having, is predicted upon laws designed to protect the unequal, those who are smaller and less strong from those who are larger and stronger.

We know that this concept is as American as squash and chitlins. . . .

Now, if one of the major and fundamental roles of government is this equalizing one, then the adoption of the so-called Equal Rights Amendment will negate this same equalizing function under the guise of broadening it. The Equal Rights Amendment will invalidate all the legislation, hundreds of pieces of it, which has been adopted over the last 100 years which were passed to permit a semblance of equality which had been denied women down through the ages.

There are various kinds of protection for women workers provided by State laws and regulations (1) minimum wage; (2) overtime compensation; (3) hours of work, meal and rest period; (4) equal pay; (5) industrial homework; (6) employment before and after childbirth; (7) occupational limitations; and (8) other standards, such as seating and washroom facilities and weightlifting limitations. It would be desirable for some of these laws to be extended to men, but the practical fact is that an Equal Rights Amendment is likely to destroy the laws altogether rather than bring about coverage for both sexes. Those State laws that are outmoded or discriminatory, should be repealed or amended and should be handled on a “case by case” basis.

I am appalled by leaders of social institutions working hand in glove with industry leaders who wish to repeal the above mentioned laws. I warn the women of America who seek equality without repression to reject the old saw “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” That admonition comes with a hollow ring, especially from those who enjoy their having a housekeeper, wife-mother, and breadwinner combined at their disposal.

The chief conflict between those who support the Equal Rights Amendment and those of us who oppose it, is not whether women should be discriminated against, but what constitutes a discrimination. We, who want equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work and equal status for women, know that frequently we obtain real equality through a difference in treatment, rather than identity in treatment. We think that democratic concept is an important part of our Constitution.

We believe that orderly legislative revision is the practical way to erase such “specific bills for specific ills.” I oppose adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment since I believe that the adoption of the amendment would jeopardize existing labor laws and standards that apply to women. That it would create endless confusion in the wide field of laws relating to property, personal status and marriage. This will adversely affect the women of America and their families.

Equality of opportunity for men and women must be achieved without impairing the social legislation which promotes true equality for safeguarding the health, safety and economic welfare of all.

For an example, the passage of an hours limitation law for women provided them with a shield against obligatory overtime to permit them to carry on their life at home as wives and mothers. While all overtime should be optional for both men and women, it is absolutely mandatory that overtime for women be regulated because of her double role in our society.

At the time that State protective legislation was initiated, there were relatively few women in the labor force, yet, society recognized the need to protect women workers. At present, there are more than 30,000,000 women in the labor force. Almost 60% of them are married and living with their husbands. Working mothers constitute 38% of all working women. Obviously, the majority of women workers have domestic responsibilities, and a very substantial number of them, almost 11,000,000 have children under the age of 18 years. Even with the 40 hour work week, such women (between their paid employment and their many hours of cooking, cleaning, shopping, child-care and other household duties)work arduously long hours. While “the double income economy” has forced millions of women into the labor force, millions more the sole or major breadwinners for their families, it has not released them from home and family responsibilities.

To deprive women of protective legislation, for as long as one second, frustrates their basic constitutional right to safety and the pursuit of happiness and denies to them the fundamental reason for their participation in a government of law.

You must understand that the overwhelming portion of women who work, need to work. They need their job and the income it produces. Where women are unorganized and that means 85% or more of them, they depend solely upon their employers‘ understanding of their home responsibilities. In most cases, he is a man more concerned with meeting production standards than he is for his female workers’ childrens safety and well-being. . . .

Those of us in the struggle for the advancement of women prefer to fight for positive measures such as equal pay for equal work and equal employment opportunities. We fought for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We fought for and got Title VII to the Civil Rights Act. In its positive application, Title VII can be an effective instrument for overcoming discrimination against women in employment and can contribute substantially to their progress. However, some of the guidelines established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, unfortunately, have invited an assault upon State protective legislation, without distinguishing between those provisions which might be viewed as discriminatory and those which are not, in fact, discriminatory. The result of such sweeping guidelines has made the equality that many have sought, an equality of mistreatment.

In Detroit, six Penn Central System office women were assigned to jobs as checkers of freight cars at the Detroit-area railroad yards, after they complained about sex discrimination to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. The women had been employed as clerks and typists. Climbing in and out of box cars as railroad checkers, is a back-breaking job, but a company executive said,“they asked for equal rights, so what are they complaining about?”

Eleanor Hannon, 51, a widow with five children, said,“I can’t afford to quit, but I don’t know how long I can last on this job, particularly if I have to work a night shift.” The transfer from the office pool to the freight docks was within the scope of the railroad’s contract with the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks. . . .

Do we discard protective legislation for women, if we are unable to get such legislation for men? The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would do this, and it is wrong. Ironically, many of the Business and Professional Women, most vocal in advocating the overthrow of hour limitations, would not be affected at all, since many of the States with hours limitations already exempt them from these restrictions. I must remind those who are influenced by the Business and Professional Women that the Equal Rights Amendment does not require equal pay for equal work, nor does it require promotion of women to better or “decision making jobs.” It does not elect more women to public office. It does not convince men to help with the housework.

The Federation of Business and Professional Women would do well to legislate for their own inclusion into the equal pay for equal work provision of our law rather than seek repeal of protective legislation for others as they do in a booklet published by them entitled “How to Repeal Protective Legislation.” Their booklet states “the days of sweat shops and intolerable working conditions, in which exploitation of women workers went rampant, are largely passed. The notion that women are frail and require special protection is obsolete.”

The days of exploitation are not over for thousands of women workers, among them the domestics who work in the homes of many of the Business and Professional Women!! . . .

Many of today’s feminists oppose and resent protective legislation for women since they postulate that such legislation treats them as children whose lives have to be regulated by other adults. Yet the Women’s Liberation groups wish to regulate the lives of other women and treat them as children telling them that the job of wife and mother is unfulfilling and unsatisfying. Should the women, so being lectured, disagree, she is immediately charged with having been brainwashed!

Feminists, assuredly, do not represent the majority of women and do not correctly relate their needs and feelings. For the most part, women who join “liberation groups” are white, middle-class and college-oriented. The most active of these women, who do the work of the organizations, are those with no or grown children. Working women, like the mothers of young children, are too busy to be liberated.

The National Organization of Women (N.O.W.) one of the most vocal supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, claim to have about 3,000 members. They speak of the discontent of wives and mothers. They speak for a small minority when they urge passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They do not speak for Mary Dennison of the Congress of Racial Equality who is quoted as saying “The Women’s Liberation Movement is a luxury that only bored white women can afford.” They do not speak for the divorced, separated or abandoned mother when they urge passage of the Equal Rights Amendment which will weaken the husband and father obligation for child support. Divorced, separated and deserted wives struggling to support themselves and their children may find their claims to support even harder to enforce than they are right now.

The Equal Rights Amendment could create new obligations for women to support their husbands and children. Wives and mothers who are not in the labor force (and they are a substantial majority) may find they can no longer choose to stay out of the labor force. Under the Equal Rights Amendment, they might become obligated for furnishing half the family support. The right of choice for these women should be protected. For many American women, particularly for those in the lower brackets, losing that choice is a heavy and undemocratic price to pay for an illogical theory of equality.

Women’s Liberation is the most misused and abused phrase in the English Language. To some, the word means—liberation from marriage—liberation from housework-liberation from bearing and rearing children—liberation from all forms of social responsibility—copping out. To others, not so.

I believe women should be a part of a social movement dedicated to reforming our social structure to permit true equality between the sexes. It should accomplish for all women, young and old, married and single, housewives and breadwinners, mothers and the childless, wives and widows; their goals and aspirations. It should improve their life, gain recognition for their double role in society and the recognition of that responsibility. It should broaden the fruits of science to lessen the drudgery of our housework and to making clothing functional, yet enhancing. It should bring peace to the world and bring our teenagers home, going to colleges or learning a trade rather than working towards expanding the draft by including women to kill and destroy. It should fight to maintain the right to stay home as a housewife and mother, if circumstances permit, and that be the preference of the individual woman. It should fight to have an economy that’s free from hunger and privation that affords freedom from want and need in a society that promises every man and woman equal pay for equal work. That’s the kind of liberation I’m interested in.

Not everyone agrees with me, I am sure, for there is no more unanimity of opinion among women than among men. The plight of the black woman forced to leave her children untended as she goes off to clean the home of the rich women is unbridgeable. Both may be wives and mothers, both are women, but they have little in common to cause them to be of one opinion.

We live in a world of socially prescribed differences, of fashion prejudices, of customs relating to masculinity and feminity. To achieve equality, we must start equal by recognizing physical and biological differences. We are different, and remember, different does not mean deficient. . . .

No gentlemen, women receive nothing, absolutely nothing, from the Equal Rights Amendment except a vague male guilt freeing generality about “Pie in the sky, bye and bye.” What we lose may not be all we hope to get, but it’s the fruit of our 100 years effort and we have it now today, we need it now today, and we don’t propose giving it up today or in the immediate or even distant future.

I have attempted to convey to you my opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment as a citizen, woman, widow, mother, worker and union official representing thousands of women (and men). I have tried to prove that women (and men, as well) will suffer adversely, socially, politically and economically. I have endeavored to prove to you that the action before you is based upon an undemocratic concept contrary to the philosophy embodied in our Constitution.

I urge you oppose S.J. Res. 61. The legislative process of enacting “specific bills for specific ills” must be invoked to correct the inequities in our society today.

The differences between men and women cannot be changed by an Act of Congress—or by a Constitutional Amendment. . . .


Miss MILLER. It is interesting to note that in most of the present political activity concerning women, and particularly by those who support this amendment, the “forgotten majority” are the workingwomen, these millions of women employed in the factories, fields, and service industries of the Nation. And this is where the effect of passage of this amendment would be most sorely felt.

It is quite apparent that the leadership in support of the amendment is composed mainly of middle-class professional and semiprofessional women, an infinitesmal percentage of the more than 30 million in the work force. Most of this huge work force is unskilled and semi-skilled work.

Since the turn of the century, a 70-year period, most States, including my own State of California, have enacted statutes designed to benefit working people.

In essence, these laws and regulations were based on humane considerations. The primary concern was protection of health, safety, and general welfare of the people affected. Thus, we have had limitations on hours of work, minimum pay, restrictions on weightlifting, plus provisions for good lighting, seating, ventilation, rest periods and the like. The thrust has always been an attempt to remove extremes of possible exploitation in the areas of low wages, long hours, and other substandard working conditions.

These State regulations largely apply to women.

Justification for passage of these laws for one sex was found in the amply demonstrated fact that women lent themselves more readily to the extremes of exploitation.

The proponents of the equal rights amendment claim these labor standards have outlived their usefulness, and the effect of the removal of protective labor standards would virtually be nil.

I would like to examine those assertions in the light of California law and on the advice of attorneys that the passage of the proposed amendment would, in one fell swoop, nullify those standards.

California regulations with regard to the employment of women flow from two sources: the State labor code and the 14 wage orders issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission of the Industrial Relations Department. Each of the 14 wage and working conditions orders provides, among other standards, for a $1.65 minimum wage per hour. This, of course, means every woman whether employed in interstate or intrastate commerce is protected by this minimum, close to 2 million people. Should the equal rights amendment prevail and nullify the orders, women employed in interstate commerce in low-paying jobs, could immediately suffer the threat of a 5-cent-per-hour reduction in earnings. This particularly poignant figure at that wage level and the danger is compounded by the added problem of a 6.2 percent unemployment rate in the State today. But worse than that is the plight of the girl employed in intrastate industry who would be completely at the mercy of her employer in the absence of the orders.

Even more dramatic would be the plight of farmworkers—and California has a tremendous agricultural industry. Farmworker women, too, after much struggle, won the $1.65 minimum wage. The Federal minimum under the 1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act brought farmworkers to the level of $1.30 per hour beginning February 1, 1969. There are well over 100,000 women farmworkers in California. They earn close to the minimum wage; only a very small percentage are in interstate commerce and few are covered by the benefits of collective bargaining agreements.

Those who would so cavalierly cast out these protections should give pause when they think of the workingwoman, who earns a mere $1.65 per hour, faced with a possible reduction of 35 cents per hour if she is one of the lucky few in interstate commerce. If not she would have no minimum wage protection at all.

California is one of seven States which presently have minima for women only. Before taking the responsibility for seeing women workers—and they represent better than one-third of the total work force—deprived of this significant protection, the proponents of the amendment you are considering would be well advised to seek their remedy in the extension of minimum wage protections to the entire work force in each of these States.

The same reasoning can be applied to such provisions in California orders as rest periods, good ventilation, lighting, meal periods, reporting pay, et cetera, which should, in my view, be applied to the entire work force.

The two most difficult areas in terms of the present discussion are weight lifting regulations and limitations on hours of work. Proponents of the proposed amendment say these regulations lead to discriminatory practices against women, bar them from promotions and prevent them from enjoying the benefits of overtime work.

Let me hasten to say that many States, my own included, explicitly exempt women in the professions and certain creative activities from the provisions of the law. Unfortunately, these proponents place the blame for discriminatory practices against women, including lack of promotions, in the wrong place. There is no question in my mind that women are discriminated against at the hiring in level on wages and job responsibilities and promotional opportunities. They are continuously confined to accepted women’s work and at women’s wages. But the fault is in the social and cultural attitudes of the Nation, not in protective laws. And the remedy must relate to its source and not an extraneous area. The removal of protective labor standards will not and the passage of the equal rights amendment cannot eliminate overt and subtle cultural practices. . . .

It was an examination of the question of weight lifting which led my union by convention action in May of 1970 to conclude:

Regulations on weight lifting should be revised in accordance with standards set by competent authorities on the basis of physical characteristics, without regard to sex.

The major assault on state protective legislation has, however, been on the proponents of repeal of this limitation that it is discriminatory against the female worker vis-a-vis the male employee; that inability to work overtime not only denies extra income but promotional opportunity. They seek redress in repeal of these limitations at the State level or through passage of equal rights amendments. . . .

No evaluation of the merits of keeping hours limitations can be valid without giving thought to the duality of the role of women in the work force. Almost three out of five women workers are married and living with their husbands. Two out of five are mothers, and 11 million have children under 18 years of age. Consider that a women who works 8 hours a day at the job is away from home between 9 and 10 hours each day depending on transportation problems. In most cases, she does the marketing, food preparation, cleaning, laundry. She is the one who mainly cares for children, home, husband. Extension of the workday for her not only makes her availability uncertain but serves as an open sesame into making her labor endless hours during the day and night. She has little time for anything but tasks.

In 1967, a serious and partially successful attempt was made to extend the hours of work for women in California. No issue in my memory has so incensed the members of my union more than the possibility of being required to work more than 8 hours per day. I am pleased to report we retained the 8-hour standard. It is important to note, too, that California law always permitted a sixth day of work at time and one-half. The same is true of our union contracts. I have repeatedly been told by our women members that when Saturday work is required it causes excessive hardship for them in terms of their home responsibilities. And these are women who work because they must and, at best, have moderate incomes.

It cannot be denied that in some few cases women who cannot work overtime in the light of state hours limitations suffer discrimination. But this must be weighted against the welfare and responsibilities of the vast majority who should not carry the burden for a few. . . .

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Equal Rights 1970: Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, 91st Cong., 2d sess., September 9, 10, 11, and 15, 1970, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).