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Red Dirt Women and Power: A Video/Oral History of Activists in Oklahoma's Campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any other State on account of sex.” – Text of the Equal Rights Amendment

Protesters holding banner saying "Oklahoma for ERA"

Written By Julie Stidolph

In January 1972, forty-nine years after suffragist Alice Paul first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, the measure finally passed in both houses of Congress. State legislatures across the country raced to be part of the historic constitutional change, with 13 ratifying the amendment within the following three days. In Oklahoma, the only initial concern raised by the ERA was a small controversy over which senator would be credited with filing the resolution, and it easily passed the Senate with only a voice vote.1 However, this benign beginning was only the calm before the storm. A week later, legislators in the House defeated the measure, arguing that it needed further study given its potential consequences.2 Thus, in a portent of future events, Oklahoma became the first state to vote down the Equal Rights Amendment. The public and legislative battle over ratification would last over ten years.

Capitol March for ERA

The legislative session in 1973 revealed growing controversy as the House debated the possible long-term ramifications of the amendment, focusing on issues such as women in the military, inheritance and tax laws, the pay of working women, and the legitimate role of women in society. On January 26, the House rejected the measure for a second time with a vote of 45 to 53.3 By late 1974, a poll indicated growing support for the ERA with a small majority of House members favoring the amendment. Nevertheless in January 1975, the House defeated ratification a third time by a 45-51 vote. Throughout activists continued to educate both the legislature and the public on the issue.

Crowd of protesters holding signs in support of ERA

In order for the proposed amendment to be ratified, 38 states needed to approve the ERA by March 22, 1979. As this deadline approached, public debate intensified and national attention focused hopes for ratification on four key states, one of which was Oklahoma. When Congress extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982, activists vigorously renewed their efforts.

In January 1982, Senate leader and longtime ERA supporter Marvin York decided to risk a vote on an ERA resolution although the result was uncertain.4 A poll conducted a few days before the vote showed that Oklahoma was truly a battleground on the ERA question though leaning strongly in favor. A plurality of 44% favored the amendment, 38% opposed, and 15% remained uncertain.5 However, as supporters and opponents alike watched from the packed gallery, the vote to ratify came up short by four votes. The June deadline passed without approval by enough states to win ratification.

References:

  1. Associated Press, “Equal Rights for Women Amendment Clears Senate,” The Daily Oklahoman, March 24, 1972.
  2. John Greiner, “Rep. Atkins Serves Notice on Equal Rights Foes,” The Daily Oklahoman, March 30, 1972.
  3. John Greiner, “House Rejects Rights Proposal In 45-53 Vote,” Daily Oklahoman, February 1, 1973; Jerry Searbrough, “Poll Shows Growing Support for Rights Amendment,” Daily Oklahoman, December 19, 1974; Greiner, “House Scuttles Equal Rights Amendment,” Daily Oklahoman, January 22, 1975.
  4. Mike Hammer, “Senate Leader Gambles in Calling for ‘Blind’ ERA Vote,” The Daily Oklahoman, January 14, 1982.
  5. Paul Scott Malone, “Poll Gives ERA Slight Edge, But It’s ‘Too Close to Call’,” The Daily Oklahoman, January 14, 1982.

Interviews

Charlotte Bailey grew up in California, Nebraska and New York, and moved to Tulsa with her family in 1974. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1953 and her law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1983, after which she practiced with Legal Aid of Oklahoma. Recruited by Penny Williams to work on the ERA media campaign in the Tulsa area, she partnered with Rhoda Baker in that effort.

Debbie Blasiar was a graduate student in regional planning at the University of Oklahoma when she became involved in the ERA campaign, working with Cynthia Hoyle as an organizer for NOW in the southeastern part of the state. Both also participated in Ladies Against Women (see the LAW interview.) Blasiar also joined with others to chain the statue of the Pioneer Woman in Ponca City after the legislature’s failure to ratify the amendment. Influenced by the strong women in her family, Blasiar was born in Nebraska and grew up in north central Missouri.

Margaret Cox was born at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, grew up mostly in Washington, D.C., and lived in California before returning to Oklahoma as an adult. During the last six months of the ERA campaign she organized and canvassed door to door. She was a volunteer for the last rally at the capitol on June 6, 1982, assigned to Ruth Rolfe, who was in charge of greeting buses.

Holly Childs developed her social conscience in Arkansas, where she was born and raised. Childs participated in the civil rights movement as a university student at the University of Arkansas, later moving to Bartlesville where she worked for Phillips Oil Company and discovered gender discrimination in pay. Becoming a full-time mother and homemaker while her husband was a Phillips scientist, Childs felt called to work on the ERA campaign, which she learned about through her membership in the League of Women Voters. She and Harriet Guthrie became innovative and industrious organizers of the eastern half of the state, later expanding that role further west. Their role and their partnership were unique. Childs entered graduate school towards the end of the campaign, earning an M.S. in chemical engineering and becoming a manager for 3M in Minnesota.

Eddie Collins became an ERA activist through his membership in the Norman Women’s Political Caucus while a student at the University of Oklahoma. He worked closely with NWPC leaders Shirley Hilbert Price and Junetta Davis, his “political godmothers” in a variety of organizing capacities. And he worked with Wanda Jo Peltier [Stapleton] canvassing and dropping literature in various legislative districts. He, along with Debbie Blasiar, Shirley Hilbert Price, and others, chained the Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City following the legislature’s failure to ratify the amendment. Collins strived for balance as he worked 20 hours per week, attended school full time and campaigned for the ERA.

Janice Dreiling was born and raised in Kansas. A resident of Bartlesville, she learned about the ERA in 1973 through her membership in the American Association of University Women. Shortly after, she attended the day at the capitol sponsored by the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, where attendees were urged to go home and form coalitions to campaign for the ERA. She immediately began to organize the Bartlesville Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council and soon became a public speaker and debater for the ERA in the Tulsa area. In 1976 she entered law school, eventually becoming a practicing attorney and then an Oklahoma district judge.

Born in Nebraska, Marilyn Best grew up there and in New Mexico and came to Oklahoma to attend Bethany Nazarene College. She and her roommate, Thelia Elliot, welcomed NOW “missionaries” from all over the country to stay for extended periods in their home. Their house was a “hub of activity” during the Countdown Campaign in 1981 and 1982. Marilyn also provided the out-of-state visitors with a car. She had an early video camera and has donated video of the campaign and of news reports to the Oklahoma History Society.

Ruth Rolfe was born in Texas but grew up in Oklahoma City where she was a civil rights activist during high school under the leadership of Clara Luper. She became involved in the Oklahoma City Women’s Political Caucus in the early 1980s and engaged in mass mailing, phone banking, lobbying and organizing rallies for the ERA campaign. She and Marilyn Best may have been introduced by their mutual friend, Barbara Cleveland.