Be Careful What You Wish For: How Discrimination Based on Social Function Was Nearly Official United States Policy
The Taft-Wadsworth Women's Status Bill of 1947—introduced to combat the newly-popular Equal Rights Amendment—was full of contradictions. It provided that the policy of the United States was not to allow discrimination against women, but then carved out an exception that would surely have swallowed the rule: Laws could differentiate based on sex so long as they did so on account of "physical structure, biological, or social function." Despite the seemingly toothless nature of the Status Bill, it drew widespread support from women's groups and progressive organizations, most notably the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and every major labor union.
This paper explores the short life of the Status Bill—who drafted it? What compromises were made? Why was it so imperative to the bill's supporters that the ERA not be enacted? Representative Wadsworth, the bill's sponsor in the House, was a conservative stalwart who opposed the Nineteenth Amendment. Why was the League of Women Voters on his side? If the bill had such widespread support, why was it not adopted? What does the bill's introduction and failure at this particular point in American history say about where the country had come from and where it was going in the realm of gender relations?
To answer these questions, the paper looks at the status bill in its historical context: World War II had just ended, and the men came back from Europe and the Pacific to find that their wives had learned to manage all aspects of day-to-day life—even those traditionally done by men—while they were gone. Some women were happier with this arrangement than others, but one thing is certain: the cat was out of the bag with respect to women working in traditionally male jobs. It was no longer a question of if, but when. Large numbers of women would enter the labor force. Less certain, however, was how to accommodate all these working women. Society—both men and women for the most part—still expected them to be mothers first, and continued to hold many preconceived notions about what women could or could not handle. This societal uncertainty opened the door just enough for the Status Bill to take the wind out of the ERA's sails. Constitutional law further muddied the waters and provided support for a bill that would allow the federal government to discriminate on the basis of social function. Legal scholars were keenly aware that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had not lived up to their promise to curb real discrimination against racial minorities. They were also wary of pursuing a constitutional amendment that had little chance of being ratified by the requisite number of states.
In the end, the Status Bill was not adopted as the law of the land, but it surfaced when conditions were absolutely perfect for it to wreak just enough havoc and attract just enough support to thwart the Equal Rights Amendment's first real chance at ratification. At the same time the bill's resounding defeat when it was put to a vote on the Senate floor spoke volumes about the direction in which the United States was heading with respect to women's equality.
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