The people of Mississippi have the opportunity to have their voices heard and play a part in the making of herstory to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As of today, Mississippi presents an opportunity for supporters and advocates of the ERA to be the last state needed to ratify the Amendment, whether it be through connecting with their state legislators, participating in demonstrations, or raising awareness through social media.
The current session began on January 8, 2019.
On January 14, 2019, Rep. Bryant Clark (D-Pickens) introduced HC 5 ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. On the same day, the bill was referred to the Constitution Committee in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
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Historical Context Regarding the ERA in Mississippi
During the 1970s, Mississippi became home to diametrically opposed forces in the struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Mississippi was the last of the fifty states to ratify the 19th Amendment guaranteeing womens’ suffrage. Although it officially became law nationwide in 1920, it was only ratified by the Mississippi state legislature on March 22, 1984.
A multitude of organizations and individuals supported the ratification of the ERA in the Magnolia State following the passage of the Amendment in the U.S. Congress. In October of 1972, ERA proponents including the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the League of Women Voters (LWV), the Mississippi Nurses Association, the Jackson Women’s Coalition, the AFL- CIO, National Organization for Women (NOW), and the Mississippi Hairdressers and Cosmetologists met in Jackson, Mississippi to organize a campaign in favor of ratifying the Amendment. Two of the pro-ERA leaders attending this meeting included Jean Muirhead, an attorney and former state senator, and Dr. Connie McCaa, the coordinator for the Amendment’s ratification for Jackson’s NOW chapter. It was at this meeting that Mississippi House Representative John Eaves declared that he would sponsor the Amendment in the legislature.
At the same time, Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign was especially successful in the southern states including Mississippi. Ellen Campbell, the leader of Mississippi’s local STOP ERA organization, said “Man is the head of the home. In the societal order of things, he is above the women”. Another ERA opponent in Mississippi, Peggy Rayborn, argued that the Amendment’s wording was open to interpretation and stated: “The main result of the passage of the ERA would be to transfer jurisdiction of all laws pertaining to women and the family from the states to the federal government and courts. Considering the mess they make of everything, this would be catastrophic. Besides, the government has enough power and interferes too much as it is”.
In January of 1973, the ERA was introduced in both the Mississippi House of Representatives and the Mississippi State Senate. The Senate Constitution Committee held hearings and State Representative Betty Jane Long was appointed the head of a subcommittee to study the ERA. Hearings were held on the issue, but the Amendment never received enough votes to get out of committee. A year later in 1974, the Amendment died again in committee.
Representative Long and Senator Berta Lee White were both opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, and politicians who supported ratification such as Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Gandy downplayed their support, stating in a 1976 interview with the Clarion-Ledger that “I personally favor it. But I don’t believe it is a priority item for Mississippi women. There are other matters of more importance . . . such as education and health care.”
The International Woman’s Year conference in Mississippi in 1977 illustrated the extent to which Mississippians were polarized regarding the ERA. While many pro-ERA activists attended, they the sheer number of ERA opponents overwhelmed them. The opponents’ coalition called itself
“Mississippians for God, Country, and Family” and included many religious conservatives. Some other ERA opponents had a history of opposing the Civil Rights Movement, including Dallas Higgins, the wife of a Ku Klux Klan leader.
The Clarion-Ledger would later criticize Gandy in 1979 for “socialism” regarding her support for the ERA. William Winter, the Governor of Mississippi, supported the ERA but was not able to find backing in the legislature for the bill. In July of 1981, the National Organization for Women held a “countdown rally” in Hattiesburg with the goal of raising money for the national ERA campaign, however, the money raised would be spent on ratification campaigns in other states.
To date, the ERA did not pass the Mississippi legislature in either chamber.
Recent Events and Trends in Mississippi
As of 2017, Mississippi is one of the states which has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
On January 21, 2017, hundreds of individuals participated in a march in Jackson, Mississippi corresponding to the national Women’s March in Washington, D.C. One of the leaders present at the march was Mississippi Representative Alyce Clarke (D-Jackson), indicating her support for more women in office and more discussion in politics in public settings. She stated: “If we get enough women in the right places, we’ll start getting paid the right amount”.
Alexia Fernández Campbell explains in an 2015 article in The Atlantic that demographics in Mississippi could affect politics. The percentage of the Latino population has doubled in Mississippi from 2 to 4 percent, and Mississippi has both the highest percentage of African-American residents at 37 percent and the highest percentage of African-American elected officials. Considering the role of African-American legislative leaders in other states in championing the ERA, it is possible that Mississippi’s leaders may come to support the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Please call your State Senators and Representatives and encourage them to support the ratification of the ERA in Mississippi.
Be sure to stay informed on news and events regarding the progress of the ERA through the Equal Means Equal website at www.equalmeansequal.org.