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Coalition and Control: Hoosier Feminists and the Equal Rights Amendment

From: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 34, Number 2, 2013
pp. 52-82 | 10.1353/fro.2013.0016

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Mobilization for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA ) profoundly affected the nature and trajectory of the second-wave feminist movement in Indiana. In 1972 Indiana leaders of the feminist movement created a bipartisan coalition, Hoosiers for the Equal Rights Amendment (HERA ), and implemented a “low-key” ratification strategy that mandated decorum and private, behind-the-scenes lobbying. By pressuring feminist organizations in the state to refrain from advocacy on controversial issues and public protest throughout the five years the statehouse considered the ERA , they hoped to present a single feminist identity that eschewed radicalism, specifically projecting a “‘Mom and apple pie’ image.” By 1976 HERA had imploded; the low-key strategy muzzled discussion of other issues, and in their frustration feminists abandoned statewide coalition. Indiana ratified the ERA in 1977, the last state in the nation to do so, but the tension within feminist ranks over strategy made many weary of collaboration. The history of the ERA in Indiana reveals how feminists achieved the remarkable goal of statewide coordination and effectively collaborated in achieving state ratification, but at the cost of marginalizing liberationists and left-leaning women within the fold.

A study of the second wave in Indiana contributes to the growing scholarship on regionality and feminism. Janet Allured, Melissa Estes Blair, Judith Ezekiel, and Stephanie Gilmore prove how important place is to the development of the second wave and how distinctions between “radical” and “liberal” must be understood within a local context. Gilmore argues that while the National Organization for Women (NOW ) is understood as the classic example of liberal feminism, Memphis NOW was “simultaneously liberal and radical” because it blended support for the ERA with public efforts to raise awareness of rape and domestic violence and engaged in public protest. Estes Blair agrees with the primacy of place in understanding the radical/liberal divide, arguing that “while NOW was considered a reformist, liberal organization in cities like Chicago and New York, in Indianapolis it was seen as a radical feminist group.” Although the Dayton feminists Ezekiel uncovers always affiliated with liberationist politics that would transform, as opposed to reform, society, they also “saw no contradiction in supporting the NOW campaign to end sex-segregated classified ads, or other liberal feminist demands.” Despite blurring at the grassroots level, the categories “liberal” and “radical” remain useful constructs because they provide a way to distinguish between distinct ideologies and approaches. Alice Echols’s characterization of liberal feminism as a reformist effort geared toward “bringing women into the mainstream” by addressing public-sphere discrimination remains apt, as does her description of radical feminism as an assault on “the sex-class system,” including the elimination of exploitation within personal relationships. Structurally, too, they remain distinct since liberals favored the creation of organizations, like NOW , while radicals favored small groups, as Jo Freedman describes, with “a conscious lack of formal structure, an emphasis on participation by everyone, sharing of tasks, and the exclusion of men.” Studies of grassroots feminism add to those distinctions, however, an appreciation for what Gilmore calls the “the vast space between” dichotomies and challenge previous chronologies.

Like grassroots activists elsewhere, Hoosier feminists overall maintained the “two-strand movement” model. Throughout this essay I utilize the term liberationist to denote the small collectives of women in Indiana active before the ERA push and radical to describe those who challenged the political powers-that-be by pursuing public protest. While the two were often closely related—Indiana liberationists adopted radical, New Left tactics—they were not synonymous, as not all those in favor of public protest identified as liberationists. Liberal feminists are those interested in pan-state organization and a reformist political agenda. As the point of the essay is to understand the formation of feminist politics and organizations, I include in the category “feminist” any group or person that supported the ERA and actively worked to eliminate sex discrimination and patriarchy. I group all pro-ERA women’s activism as feminist not to obscure the diversity of their “feminisms,” but to better understand the intersection of their interests as well as the fault lines.

The split in HERA was less over ideology than strategy since most feminists, radical and liberal, agreed that...

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