Esther Peterson spent much of her career trying to improve working conditions for women through protective labor legislation and assiduously opposed the ERA for decades. Peterson was one of many advocates for working women who abandoned their opposition to the ERA in 1970-71. Her decision to support the ERA indicated how much the political climate and perceptions among feminists about the legal effect of the amendment had changed during the 1960s. Their ability to support the ERA hinged on the fact that in 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had expressed the view that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited sex-specific protective labor laws. In other words, passage of the ERA would have no additional effect on protective legislation such as minimum wage and maximum hours laws. Additionally, during this period women were increasingly able to assert themselves within labor unions and many felt they no longer needed sex-specific protective labor legislation.
7714 13th Street, N.W.
Washington, D. C. 20012
October 12, 1971
As you know, I have in the past been reluctant to support the equal rights amendment because of a long-standing concern for the low-income women workers who are so frequently exploited. Then, too, I was deeply involved the work of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and concurred with its conclusions that the Constitution embodies equality of rights for women in the fifth and fourteenth amendments. We did not feel that a constitutional amendment was needed at that time. We urged that definitive court pronouncement, particularly by the United States Supreme Court be sought so as to establish the principle of equality firmly in constitutional doctrine.
The action we had hoped for in the courts has not materialized and the increasingly conservative nature of the Supreme Court leads one to conclude that women's chances for assistance through judicial action are slight.
After much soul searching I have come to the conclusion that the time for waiting for court action is past and enactment of the equal rights amendment would be a constructive step. It is difficult for me to make this statement. I realize that it will come as a disappointment to many individuals and organizations with whom I shared the opposite view for away years. However, such has happened in the past decade to improve the prospects for women — the Equal Pay Act, extension of coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting sex discrimination in employment policies, and the amended Executive Order 11246. Also heartening are efforts to strengthen this recent legislation.
In the process, ouch state protective legislation for women has been, in effect, nullified. I note that all but twelve states have either repealed or relaxed their hours laws. Now I believe
we should direct our efforts toward replacing discriminatory state laws with good labor standards that will protect both men and women.
History is moving in this direction and I believe women must move with it. But it entails a shared responsibility for all citizens. That is why I would urge women who have found changes in the laws to be to their advantage to make every effort to assist those who still may be exploited.
My congratulations to you, Martha, for taking a courageous and foresighted position. I am happy that I can now share it with you.
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