Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Columbus Drive, 1980

Marching for Women's Rights

A Chicago rally illuminates local struggles over national legislation.

AT LEAST 20,000 WOMEN, MEN, AND CHILDREN MARCHED down Columbus Drive on Mother's Day weekend in 1980. Many carried signs, displayed sashes, and wore white clothing to evoke women suffragists from the early twentieth century—the same era when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced in Congress. Passed by Congress in 1972, the ERA outlawed differential treatment of men and women under the law. By 1980, the amendment remained three states short of ratification, so the National Organization of Women (NOW)—in collaboration with dozens of religious, labor, and political groups—organized a march and rally to urge Illinois to ratify the ERA.

LOCAL AND STATEWIDE EFFORTS TO ENCOURAGE RATIFICATION frequently focused on the state legislature in Springfield, Illinois. By holding a march in Chicago instead, ERA supporters could draw national attention to the state while attracting larger numbers and demonstrating the amendment's mainstream popularity. After all, Illinois figured prominently in the national debate over ERA as Illinois resident Phyllis Schlafly became an outspoken critic of the amendment in the 1970s. On the other side, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and first president of NOW, grew up in Peoria. The Chicago ERA march continued to center Illinois in the national debate over the role of women in society and their rights under the law.
IN THE END, THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT STILL FELL THREE STATES SHORT at the 1982 deadline for ratification. Even though Illinois passed a state version of the ERA in 1970, it was one of the fifteen states that failed to ratify the national amendment. After decades of civil rights organizing, anti-war protests, and other high-profile activism, the defeat of the ERA reflected a resurgence of conservative politics in the United States. Meanwhile, efforts to revive and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment continue into the twenty-first century.

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