Against the background of the worldwide Women’s March last year calling for sweeping social reforms —including women’s rights — and the equally global activism of the #MeToo movement, the embers of the long struggle for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution appears to be billowing again.

The movement now needs the support of only one more state to witness the fulfillment of a major social revolution.

Historically, organized labor in Maine resisted the precedent-shattering reform. A sharp example of labor’s early resistance to the sweeping legal redefinition of women’s rights was provided by its opposition to the National Women’s Party organized in 1916, which established a branch in Maine.

The NWP endorsed the ERA, first introduced in Congress in 1923, which would have repealed protective legislation for women and long fought for by organized labor which regarded such legislation as protecting the health and safety of women and advancing the cause of civilization.

Organized labor in Maine first encountered the resistance of equal rights proponents when it sought to enact the 8-hour day for women in 1923. A feminist broadside in opposition to the limitation of hours of work shouted “GIVE THE GODDESS OF LIBERTY A MAN’S CHANCE.”

Drawing upon the platform of the Equal Rights Amendment, it declared that women had the right to vote, now “Give Her The Equal Right to Work” and “Earn A Living On Equal Terms With Men.”


In 1928, Maine Commissioner of Labor Charles O. Beals captured labor’s ideological view of the ERA:

During the last few years, some of the leaders in women’s organizations, both state and national, have taken a stand against discriminating between the sexes in this (eight-hour day for women) and other legislation. My observation has shown me that leaders in this movement are women who are not compelled to work in mills and factories amid the roar and vibration of machinery, and in some instances in artificial atmospheres, but rather in offices and in more pleasing and less exhaustive employments. It is my thought that if some of these objectors would, as an experiment, accept employment for a week, in, for instance, a weaving room in one of our large mills, I feel that they would better understand the motive of those who are instrumental in bringing about the restrictive measures.

In 1931, proposals for an 8-hour day for women again met with resistance from the NWP, as did prohibition on night work, which it viewed as a restriction on women’s freedom to work.

The MSFL was not prepared, however, for removing all “legal disabilities” to women’s self-realization. Following the lead of its parent organization (American Federation of Labor), the local body viewed the “equal rights” amendment as injurious to women. It was “urged by a small group of well-to-do feminists which would cause more inequality that now exists between men and women.”

In 1939, resistance to “protective” legislation continued, including opposition to minimum wages for women and children.

Such intense opposition to efforts of women to secure greater equality was again reflected in 1945, when the MSFL echoed the stance of the national order in opposition to the ambitions of the NWP:


For 25 years, the lobbyists of the Women’s Party have endeavored to slip through this wretched proposal on the plea that it was needed to safeguard the rights of women. They have had little or nothing to say about its chief effect — the wiping out of a legal safeguard for working women.

While local and national organizations of the American Federation of Labor were prepared to support legislation removing discrimination on grounds of sex in such areas as property, guardianship, naturalization and other rights guaranteed to men, it was not prepared to remove industrial protections for women which they regarded as a protected class.

Given that equal rights advocates viewed protective legislation as a form of bondage to men, the officialdom of the MSFL in its self-appointed guardian role argued “Congress should listen more closely to women who work than to women whose entire time is spent in agitating.”

The rival Congress of Industrial Organizations was also quick to remind its affiliated organizations that its support of the principle of equal pay for equal work did not mean endorsement of the ERA. The CIO, too, had supported protective legislation for women because women “were physically different from men.” At its convention in 1944, it called upon its entire membership to defeat the “bogus amendment which would retard the great progress made by and for women workers.”

The MSFL again took a strong stance on the issue of equal pay for equal work in the immediate years following World War II. Given the fact that women served as the “industrial reserve army” and helped build the “arsenal of democracy,” it was next to impossible for the state labor organization not to address and applaud their role in winning the war.

The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s galvanized the energies of women in their struggle to secure their full rights.


The National Organization of Women organized in 1966, forcefully called for equal employment opportunity and equal pay as civil rights. In 1967 it endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment which, passed by Congress in 1972, offered changes in divorce laws and for legalization of abortion.

In January 1973, a statewide ERA crusade was launched by the Portland chapter of NOW in conjunction with the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Young Women’s Christian Association to support its ratification in the 106th Special Session of Legislature. Maine’s Common Cause stated “that the case-by-case attack on discriminatory laws and regulations which has been waged in the legislatures and the courts for more than 50 years has not succeeded in eradicating sex discrimination by federal, state, and local governments. Only a Constitutional Amendment — with its massive legal, moral, and symbolic impact — can provide the impetus for the necessary changes in our lives.”

The coalition of reformers sent a letter to each member of the Legislature requesting that they study and support the ERA. (Gov. Kenneth Curtis proclaimed Aug. 26, 1972 as Equal Rights Day, which provided psychological and moral support for the cause.)

In defense of its historical opposition to the ERA, Benjamin Dorsky, helmsman of the Maine State Federated Labor Council (born of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1956), and other labor spokespersons argued the familiar refrain that organized labor had always supported equal rights for women, equal employment opportunities, and defended equal pay for equal work.

As evidence, they referred to labor’s support for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which prohibited wage differentials based on sex for those workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title 7, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also referred to labor’s support in expanding the jurisdiction and power of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission which was charged with investigating and adjudicating complaints. Repeating the familiar mantra of serving the cause of women, they argued that the noble title of the amendment would remove the edifice of legislative protections that women had gained over the years, such as hour legislation and standards relating to working accommodations, rest periods, weight lifting, etc.

Arguments were also advanced that protection against discrimination existed in the form of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, and that passage of the ERA would lead to judicial confusion because all the laws that differentiated between men and women would be challenged in court or would require legislative action to change.


Labor also warned of the profound changes the amendment would produce in American society and culture, changes that many women did not desire.

Many, however, were persuaded of the need for the ERA, not because of the “stridency of the women’s liberation movement,” but they viewed it as a matter of simple justice.

The pivotal moment of the reversal of labor’s position of protective legislation for women was clearly evident in the convention of the MSFLC in the summer of 1973, following the Bureau of Labor and Industry’s Department of Manpower Affairs request for an advisory opinion from the state attorney general on the question of whether state laws violated the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The attorney general handed down a decision which declared that protective labor laws for women to be inoperative and thus invalid for businesses with more than 15 employees. The opinion was limited, however, by the fact that it was given by the state’s attorney and not the courts.

The Maine AFL-CIO convention delegates adopted a resolution which condemned the Bureau of Labor and Industry for not enforcing the laws, and for not demanding a definitive court decision on the validity of the laws, instead of merely asking for an advisory opinion. 

When the ERA passed Congress in 1972, the national AFL-CIO endorsed the reform and organized labor in Maine was now faced with a cultural, historical and legal shift against its traditional outlook and practices.


Entrenched in the established social order, organized labor (as well as other institutions) in Maine and the nation was not prepared to address the new values and demands of the seismic cultural shift produced by the feminist movement. The right to vote, secured by women in an earlier period, clearly proved to be inadequate in addressing the multifaceted problems faced by women.

For example, on Aug. 26, 1970 — Women’s Liberation Day — various feminist organizations marched through 40 cities protesting all signs of feminine servility and giving emphases to the demands of equal opportunity in education and jobs, free 24-hour child care centers, and free abortion on demand. It was a period of “consciousness raising” and “Take Back the Night” marches and demonstrations to publicize the crime of rape, the call for women’s counseling centers, women’s studies programs, and other manifestations of women’s demand for liberation.

Expressions such as sexual inequality, sexual oppression, sexual conflict, sexual exploitation, female submission, sexual inequality, sexual hierarchies, male dominance, the sexual divisions of society, etc., filled the air. The movement to erase gender-based distinctions and “sexism,” the prejudicial belief that women were inferior to men, pervaded society. While feminists were not all forged on the same ideological anvil, and proposed remedies differed, there was no mistaking the assault on the masculine world of ideas, values, beliefs and attitudes.

When Maine ratified the ERA in 1974, the Maine AFL-CIO debate about the merits of the amendment subsided and drew little attention. Earnest disciples of the ERA were persistent, however, in their crusade for gender equality.

In 1984, the Legislature, via the referendum route, posed a question that would have overridden state and local discrimination based on sex. The measure was defeated. Again, phoenix-like, in 2017, efforts to secure an equal rights amendment to the Maine Constitution failed.

A contemporary advocate of the equal rights amendment to the state Constitution offered a generic profile of the work to be done:

Younger women and men may feel as though progress was made long ago, that of course women can vote, hold office, own property, support the family, write contracts, borrow money, be insured, have custody of their children and voice their political views. But should they not also be paid fairly for equal work and be equally protected from violence and sexual exploitation? Why should women bear the full burden for reproductive health care costs, care that is essential to the well-being of families and children and to the future of the country? Are women well represented in our government, in business ownership and management? If not, why not?

The existence of progressive statutes does not mean they are timeless and immutable. As members of the labor movement have learned, laws are not self executing, and statutes, court decisions and executive orders can remake the world we live in. Staffing government agencies with ideological opponents and diluting their financial support can render laws anemic. It is not necessary to gut statutes to render them ineffective.

A revitalized women’s movement seems to assure that the struggle for the ERA is not ready to be consigned to the graveyard of history, but ensures that the relentless efforts to enshrine protection against sexual discrimination and secure gender equality in the organic law of the nation has become entrenched in the national conversation about social justice.

Charles A. Scontras is a historian and research assistant for the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine.

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