On March 22, 1973, the Washington State Senate ratifies the federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by a vote of 29 to 19. Although it was approved by the U.S. Congress in March 1972, the ERA must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states, and Washington is just the 30th to vote for ratification. (More than 50 years later, the national ERA still awaits final certification to become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.) Meanwhile in Washington, equal rights for women were assured on November 7, 1972, when voters approved House Joint Resolution 61 by a narrow margin, making it Article 31 of the state constitution.
State and Federal Amendments
The U.S. Congress approved the federal Equal Rights Amendment on March 22, 1972, but it needed to be ratified by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states. Worried that it might be years before the federal amendment became law, and to provide a mandate to Washington state lawmakers when they voted on the federal ERA, equal rights advocates worked to place a state measure before voters on November 7, 1972. The idea was to "put Washington constitutional law ahead of federal constitutional law until the federal amendment ... becomes the law of the land" ("Women’s Rights Issue in Doubt").
Washington’s ERA, known as House Joint Resolution 61 (HJR 61), was sponsored by Representative Lois North (b. 1921), a Seattle Republican and one of a handful of women serving in the state legislature. The resolution's language was simple and concise: "Equality of rights and responsibility under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex." The amendment granted the legislature "the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." The measure was introduced in the state house on January 1, 1972. It passed on February 5, 1972, by a vote of 96-3, and then passed in the senate the following week by a vote of 36-13.
Although similar in language to the federal ERA, Washington’s amendment contained one important addition. In an oral history interview, Rep. North recalls how the amendment’s language was finessed by a colleague: "When it was brought to the floor for its first reading, this crotchety old farmer from Eastern Washington rose up and he said, 'Mrs. North, will you accept a friendly amendment?' And I said, 'Well, that depends.' He said, 'After the words "equal rights" I would like to add "and responsibilities".' And I quickly thought, he's absolutely right. And I said, 'Yes, I think that strengthens the amendment.' From then on it was smooth sailing. It really made a difference to the conservative men in that body that it wasn't just rights but the responsibilities that went along with it” (Riddle).
An early proponent of HJR 61 was Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). Attorney General Slade Gorton (1928-2020) also pledged support for the legislation, although he was said to be "a recent convert to the ERA cause" ("Equal Rights Amendment Gets ..."). A kickoff event to raise funds and awareness for the state ERA was held June 3, 1972, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Seattle, drawing speakers, both men and women, from different organizations and industries, from academia to the Retail Clerks Union. Organizers estimated they would need a minimum of $30,000 to finance their work.
At the event, Betty Binns Fletcher (1923-2012), president-elect of the Seattle-King County Bar Association and chair of the state’s Equal Rights Amendment Committee, reiterated the importance of passing both the state and federal amendments. "We must have both. It may be many years before the national amendment is ratified and goes into effect. And if the state’s voters already have passed a state amendment, the legislators couldn’t defeat a national one" ("Equal Rights Amendment Gets ...").
There were many unknowns about the ramifications of HJR 61. "Like its counterpart, the equal-rights amendment to the federal Constitution now undergoing the prolonged ratification process, HJR 61 addresses far more complex issues than whether it would lead to co-ed restrooms or – as suggested in a voters’ pamphlet statement – to girls competing with boys on high school wrestling teams. These are frivolous matters at best, and they obscure the deeper question of whether society is to extinguish any and all legal – note the word legal – provisions that make distinctions between the sexes. A constitution change of the nature seems capable of generating questions so fundamental that they are not likely to be resolved swiftly or easily ... Much would depend on future court interpretations" ("Equal-Rights Law Looks Simple ...").
The state's media, often through coverage by women reporters, brought both sides of the issue to the public. "Susan Paynter, a young reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, authored a twelve-part 'Equal Rights' series ... Paynter's coverage included an analysis of women's place in society, examining challenges women faced in employment, labor, education, and families ... Newspaper readers were motivated to take part in the debate and write in their opinions, whether supportive or critical of the amendment and its coverage. Some readers questioned the placement of ERA coverage [in] women's lifestyle sections of various newspapers instead of the front pages" ("Equal Rights on the Ballot").
State ERA Passed by Slim Margin
On November 7, 1972, voters in Washington faced 24 ballot issues, including privatizing state liquor stores (which failed) and repealing the state ban on lotteries (which passed). It took more than three weeks to count some 150,000 absentee ballots and certify the results of HJR 61. During that time, media coverage flip-flopped almost daily. The day after the election, The Seattle Times went with the headline: "Equal Rights Measure Heading for Defeat," while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer used "Women’s Rights Issue in Doubt." When the votes were certified on November 29, 1972, the state ERA had won with 50.52 percent of the vote to 49.48 percent. It had passed in 15 counties and lost in 21 others, with the final count being 645,115 votes to 631,115.
HJR 61 became Article 31 to the Washington State Constitution. With its passage, scores of state laws had to be amended. "Attorney Slade Gorton and staff members said that approximately 200 state laws do not conform to the new equal-rights measure and will have to be changed. Many changes will be minor; others could prove controversial. Most will revolve around work rules, wages and hours and equal job opportunities, Gorton said" ("Equal Rights Amendment Won By Less ...").
The Thirtieth State
Although states had until 1979 to ratify the federal ERA, both sides in the fight wasted no time. One of the country’s most well-known feminists, Gloria Steinem (b. 1934), undertook a national tour with Ms. Magazine colleague Margaret Sloan to answer questions and drum up support for the federal ERA. The duo visited Seattle for a weekend in October 1972, which was jam-packed with appearances and media interviews.
On the opposing side was Betty Young, state chair of the Happiness of Womanhood (HOW) League of Housewives. Although she admitted her group did not have much money or influence to make a real difference, she noted, "'We prayed a lot ...' She said she and others would oppose any effort in the legislature to ratify the federal ERA amendment. Such amendments, she said, 'would take mothers out of the family and put them into combat boots,' a reference to the idea that equal responsibility would submit women to the draft" ("Women’s Rights Issues in Doubt").
State legislators were divided. Senator George Clarke, a Mercer Island Republican, maintained that his wife and her friends had urged him to vote no, "preferring to retain the preferential system which invests housewives with special privileges" ("Equal Rights Ratified by Legislature"). Representing the opposing view, Democratic Sen. Pete Francis of Seattle told his colleagues: "We have here an opportunity to state in ... the Constitution that the law of the land shall be equality among sexes ... Men and women will remain men and women. We just all will be equal before the law" ("Equal Rights Ratified by Legislature").
North took a similar lead role in shepherding passage of the federal ERA five months after the HJR 61 vote. After several efforts to delay the vote or change the amendment’s language – both overruled by Senate President John Cherberg (1910-1992) – Washington senators voted 29 to 19 in favor of ratification on March 22, 1973. By the end of 1973, the ERA looked as though it was well on its way: Only five more states over the next six years were needed for ratification. But the momentum petered out. Even though Congress extended the deadline to 1982, ratification fell three states short. In recent years, three more states approved but five others have acted to rescind their yes votes. As of January 1, 2023, the ERA is still awaiting final certification to become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.