How the failed Equal Rights Amendment changed Nevada

Former Nevada lieutenant governor and state legislator Sue Wagner, who broke her pick trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment approved in the 1970s, watched this week as the ERA finally passed.

Former Nevada lieutenant governor and state legislator Sue Wagner, who broke her pick trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment approved in the 1970s, watched this week as the ERA finally passed.


In 1973, the Nevada Legislature rejected the proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would have guaranteed equality of rights under the law no matter a person’s gender.

After languishing in Congress since 1923, the amendment—known as the Equal Rights Amendment—was finally approved and sent to the states for ratification in 1972. Twenty-two states ratified that year. When more state legislatures went into session in 1973, small Western states—Wyoming, South Dakota, Oregon and New Mexico—were among the first to approve it.

But a backfire had been building. Right-wing women, evangelicals and other groups that would become more influential in the years ahead got organized and slowed the ratifications to a trickle. After the Nevada Assembly approved it and the Nevada Senate rejected it in 1973 and 1975, the Nevada Senate approved it in 1977 only to see the Assembly reject it. A 1978 advisory ballot measure put an end to the ERA in Nevada when it lost in a massive landslide, 67 to 33 percent.

Meanwhile, at the national level, by the end of the seven-year ratification period, the Amendment stopped three states short of ratification, 35 of 38. A three-year extension by Congress—opposed by some women’s rights organizations—did not result in any more ratifications.

There was an occasion during the ratification fight when the U.S. Supreme Court came close to ruling that the intent of the Equal Rights Amendment was already in the law. In their book, The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong revealed that the justices nearly ruled that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—which says no state can “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”—applied to women. But the justices were unable to agree on a pace at which to apply the change, and it never happened. Years later, it did happen.

In Nevada, on March 1, one Republican, 11 Democrats and one Independent voted for the ERA in the Senate by a 13-8 vote. On March 20, the Nevada Assembly approved Senate Joint Resolution 2 as well, on a 28-14 vote. The two votes have no legal effect, but were seen as a gesture toward equality 35 years after the ERA expired.

“If it is only a symbol, it is a good one,” said former Nevada lieutenant governor Sue Wagner, who as an assemblymember fought hard to pass the ERA. She was on hand for the Assembly vote this week.

What few of the younger legislators supporting the ERA knew is that Nevada did benefit from the impact of the ERA. Because of it, numerous sexually discriminatory laws were cleaned up and corrected.

They included, for instance, a law that treated widows and widowers differently in state pension matters, prompting one legislator—Carl Dodge of Churchill County—to refuse to support the ERA for fear he would be cutting widows off from their support, though other legislators pointed out that the same treatment could be accorded both widow and widower.

Another measure dealt with a bar on women being bartenders. As late as 1973, Republican Assm. Randy Capurro said he had supported the measure on grounds that it would subject women to “moral” difficulties. He did not explain why men were not similarly challenged by barroom climates.

In the early Nevada battles, opponents said that the states could do the job better than a federal amendment. After a couple of ERA defeats, by some accounts, Republican U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt—who had run for Senate as an ERA supporter, then switched to an opponent after taking office—advised opponents to get to work and start reforming state laws.

A legislative staffer, Audys Dodge, was assigned to identify the discriminatory laws in Nevada Revised Statutes, the state’s body of statutory law, from agriculture to zoning. She produced a report naming many laws that needed correcting.

The initial corrective measure was sponsored by Assm. Karen Hayes, a right wing Democrat from Clark County who served from 1974 to 1982 and who opposed the ERA.

But it didn’t happen quickly, or in a single legislature. There were numerous bills over the years. Steadily, methodically, the legislators cleaned up one statute after another. Within about a decade every statute but one had been corrected. It’s not clear what that last one was, but some remember it as applying to firefighters. Wagner does remember complaints from spouses of firefighters—“Those damn women are going to become firefighters and sleep in the station house with my husband.” Whatever that last law was, it may finally have been corrected.

It was a major sea-change, a sweeping corrective in one state’s laws.

Today Wagner says while she was pleased the project got done, it did not redeem the claim that the ERA was unneeded. Other states did not undertake similar projects, she said, and Nevada has had many laws written since the 1970s that may not have been written with the same sensibility.

“Every state has not cleaned up their statutes,” she said. “There are things now that are not equal and that need to be changed. You really need a national standard. You can’t have pay equity in Nevada and not in New Mexico.”

It is reminiscent of an encounter between Nevada suffrage leader Anne Martin and President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. A month after Nevada voted for women’s suffrage, Wilson told Martin, “That is the way suffrage should be won, by the states.” She told him that doing it state by state is burdensome.

Even more burdensome is correcting every state’s whole body of laws, one at a time.