28 pages 56 minutes read

Shirley Chisholm

For the Equal Rights Amendment

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1970

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Summary: “For the Equal Rights Amendment”

The speech “For the Equal Rights Amendment” was given by Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm on August 10, 1970. In 1968, two years before the speech, she had become the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, representing the state of New York. Chisholm was a fierce advocate for equal rights for underrepresented groups, including racial minorities and women, and she would later become the first Black woman to run for president of the United States. Shirley Chisholm delivered this speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives in Washington, DC, imploring her fellow representatives to vote in favor of House Joint Resolution 264, better known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposed amendment to the US Constitution designed to establish equal legal rights for women. Chisholm’s speech in support of this amendment explores the themes of Gender Equality, Economic Opportunity, and Human Dignity.

This study guide refers to a free, unabridged transcript of the speech found at the American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank and is cited by paragraph.

Shirley Chisholm begins her speech by drawing comparisons between discrimination on the basis of sex and other forms of systemic discrimination. She discusses the progress that has been made to reduce or eliminate prejudice based on race, religion, and political beliefs. While she concedes that the United States could still make progress on eliminating discrimination in these areas, she points out that significant legal steps have already been taken to eliminate (or at least limit) racial, religious, and political discrimination. Chisholm contrasts this progress with the lack of legal protection for women and urges Congress to “act to assure full equity of opportunity to those citizens who, although in a majority, suffer the restrictions that are commonly imposed on minorities, to women” (Paragraph 3).

After making the aim of her speech clear, Chisholm begins to provide specific evidence for why the Equal Rights Amendment is necessary. She lists multiple examples of ways that women are discriminated against legally—exclusively on the basis of sex. Beginning with education and criminal justice, Chisholm discusses the fact that women are “excluded from some State colleges and universities” and “may not be chosen for some juries” (Paragraph 5). She goes on to point out: “Women even receive heavier criminal penalties than men who commit the same crime” (Paragraph 5). Later, Chisholm discusses labor and employment laws that apply only to women, including “limiting hours of work and weights to be lifted” (Paragraph 9). She shares examples of laws that exclude women from certain lines of work, including exclusion from Selective Service and laws that prevent their husbands from receiving survivorship benefits for a female spouse who dies on the job.

About halfway through her speech, Chisholm shifts focus to the direct and indirect impacts of the Equal Rights Amendment. She argues that eliminating work restrictions on women would open them up to “better-paying jobs in manufacturing” (Paragraph 15). Better educational opportunities would open up higher-level career options for women as well. The indirect effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, Chisholm claims, would be even more significant, as attitudes about the roles of men and women in the workplace, family, military, and society at large begin to shift in response to the law. These changes do not only affect women, Chisholm explains, but rather, “[s]ex prejudice cuts both ways” (Paragraph 16). Protections offered by the Equal Rights Amendment would free men from being the only sex expected to serve in the military or pay alimony.

Chisholm goes on to explain why the Equal Rights Amendment is necessary and why existing laws and legal systems are not adequate to provide legal equality and protection for women. She explains that while past laws like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1963 Equal Pay Act offer some protection, they do not go far enough. Chisholm points out significant exclusions in these laws, saying that “one excludes teachers, and the other leaves out administrative and professional women” (Paragraph 20). She also claims that the Justice Department has not adequately intervened in cases involving discrimination on the basis of sex and that it was often outweighed or under-considered when compared to racial discrimination. The Equal Rights Amendment, therefore, is necessary to fill the gaps left by previous laws and clarify how the Justice Department should handle cases of sex discrimination.

Finally, Chisholm ends her speech by sharing a quote from law professor and women’s rights advocate Leo Kanowitz. Kanowitz’s quote shares an additional perspective on equality—emphasizing the social and psychological effects of discrimination. Chisholm uses Kanowitz’s quote to explain that as long as women are legally discriminated against “the likelihood of men and women coming to regard one another primarily as human beings and only secondarily as representatives of another sex will continue to be remote” (Paragraph 26). Only by offering legal equality through the Equal Rights Amendment, Chisholm argues, will men and women see each other as equals.

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