Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Shirley Chisholm, For the Equal Rights Amendment (1970)

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy, Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  1. The push for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) marked the beginning of what many scholars identify as the birth of the contemporary women’s rights movement. Shirley Chisholm was a political icon who used this speech to carefully build an affirmative case for change, demonstrating how both women and men were harmed by laws that perpetuated sex discrimination. Her opposition to the status quo made her seem radical to some, but she was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. As a member of Congress, she earned a reputation for candor and political courage as she used her public speaking and debating skills to champion the interests of women, people of color, and people living in poverty at a pivotal time in U.S. history.
  2. The ERA addressed an important political question: do society’s attitudes affect laws, or do laws shape society’s attitudes? By arguing that laws shape popular thinking, Chisholm advocated for a constitutional amendment, the ERA, that would guarantee federal protections to both women and men, overriding state laws with the goal of also changing national attitudes towards the capacities and rights of both sexes. Chisholm used her considerable debate skills to demonstrate that the ERA would benefit both men and women, as well as the nation as a whole, by assuring that the U.S. lived up to its founding ideals of equality and justice for all.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • The purpose of Chisholm’s speech was to win ratification of ERA by the U.S. Congress. Chisholm’s immediate audience was the mostly white male members of Congress, but she used her debate skills to make the ERA relevant to the nation as a whole—men and women alike—by making the economic, legal, and psychological case for the ERA. Her speech built a powerful case for the ERA by addressing what debaters call “stock issues,” refuting opposing arguments, and debunking the myth that the ERA would benefit only women.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • The central idea of Chisholm’s speech was the necessity of the ERA. A constitutional amendment like the ERA would provide federal protection and override any state law that might perpetuate discrimination. In this way, the ERA would guarantee equality to both men and women, eliminating a variety of harms and barriers to full equality by clarifying the law in ways that would benefit all Americans.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.3: Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • Chisholm crafted her argument in three stages: 1) by building a case that change was needed; 2) by refuting arguments opposing the ERA; and 3) by demonstrating how sex discrimination negatively affected both men and women. Throughout her speech, she refuted arguments opposing the ERA and offered powerful counter arguments to establish how the amendment would benefit society. She provided numerous examples of how women were discriminated against under existing law and how things would change if the amendment passed.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Introduce students to the ERA. The text of the Equal Rights Amendment, as passed in 1972 by the 92nd Congress, and as published in Volume 86 of U.S. Statutes at Large, reads as follows:
    • “Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
    • Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
    • Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”
    • Do students think that there are any aspects of society in which men or women are still at a disadvantage simply because of their gender?  Almost 100 years after this amendment was first proposed, do you think there is still some need for the ERA?
  • Chisholm proudly identified herself as a feminist. In small groups, have students discuss these questions: What are your perceptions of feminism? What does it mean to be a feminist? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not? To what extent do you think that shifts in traditional gender roles have impacted America socially, economically, and politically? What are some possible benefits and drawbacks of these changes for women, men, and children?
  • Early in this speech to Congress, Chisholm agreed with opponents that no law could “eliminate prejudice from the hearts of human beings.” However later in the speech she suggested that changing the law would have important social and psychological effects. As individuals, have students write a short, 5-minute essay addressing these questions: Do you think changing the law is an effective way to eliminate prejudice and discrimination? Why or why not? Have students share their thoughts with the class.
  • Share with the class that Shirley Chisholm ran for President of the United States in 1972. Although many nations have had women serve as president or prime minister, the United States has yet to elect its first female president. Why do students think a woman has never been elected president of the United States? What are the obstacles that women face when running for the highest executive office? Do you think the nation is ready and willing to elect a woman president? Why or why not?

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • House Joint Resolution 264 [para 1]: The official name of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which proposed an amendment to the Constitution for equal rights for men and women
  • Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments [para 3]: Constitutional amendments that provide protections to people accused of crimes and people born or naturalized in the United States, respectively
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [para 7]: Federal law protecting employees against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion
  • Leo Kanowitz [para 25]: Law professor who wrote the pioneering book, “Woman and the Law: The Unfinished Revolution” that influenced discriminatory practices at law schools across the country

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-Reading, Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures, and Reading

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s or student’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • Students will read paragraphs 1-9.
  • Students will assess the purpose and central idea of the text.

Day 2: Reading & Summing Up

  • Students will read paragraphs 10-26.
  • Students will analyze how Chisholm crafted an argument for the ratification of the ERA.
  • Students will complete post-reading of their or teacher’s choice.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraph 1: Discuss with students the opening of Chisholm’s speech. Who was Chisholm’s target audience? How did Chisholm begin? How did she establish that there was a significant need for change? What did she mean when she said that the ERA provided an opportunity to “declare our faith” in the “principles that shaped our Constitution?” What did she mean when she claimed that discrimination against women was the “most subtle, most pervasive, and most institutionalized form of prejudice that exists?” Why did she consider gender discrimination more problematic than prejudice based on race?
  • Paragraph 2: In this paragraph, Chisholm went on to refute one major objection to the ERA: that it would not “solve the problem of sex discrimination” because you cannot legislate what’s in people’s hearts and minds. How did she use the civil rights movement to support her argument that this objection was misguided? If that argument were advanced against a civil rights bill, “as it has been used in the past,” she argued that “the prejudice that lies behind it would be embarrassing.” Do you think her listeners found that analogy persuasive? What did she say would be the result of doing nothing with regard to the ERA?
  • Paragraphs 3-9: In these paragraphs, Chisholm discussed some of the impacts the ERA would have on existing laws, policies, and cultural attitudes that perpetuated inequality. How did Chisholm demonstrate that current constitutional guarantees were neither clear nor applied consistently when it came to women? Which existing laws did she reference? In these paragraphs, Chisholm also addressed the oppositional argument that the ERA would result in excessive litigation to determine its legal and practical meaning. She provided the opposite argument: that the amendment was “necessary to clarify the countless ambiguities and inconsistencies” in the current legal system. How did she reference state laws to make her point?
  • Paragraphs 10-15: Throughout the speech, Chisholm cited still more examples of how women were harmed by the seemingly “natural” discrimination in the workforce, the legal system, the educational system, and the military. How did she say these practices of discrimination hurt women? What examples did she provide? Earlier in the speech, Chisholm demonstrated how women were hurt by unfair labor laws that prevented them from working overtime, limited their choice of occupations, and often relegated them to low wage jobs with minimal opportunities for advancement. Here she turns to how excluding women from the selective service law not only prevented them from assuming the “great responsibility” of serving their country, but also excluded them from the many benefits that accompany military service, like opportunities for education and training as well as medical benefits. Did she provide any examples or other evidence for this argument?
  • Paragraph 16: In this paragraph, Chisholm makes some of her boldest claims about the likely effects and advantages of ratifying the ERA. Not only would it correct many harms experienced by women, it would also bring positive legal, economic, and psychological effects for the nation as a whole. For example, she argued that focusing “public attention on the gross legal, economic, and social discrimination against women by hearings and debates in the Federal and State legislatures would result in changes in attitude of parents, educators, and employers that would bring about substantial economic changes in the long run.”
  • Paragraphs 17-18: Here Chisholm began to debunk the myth of the ERA was “just a women’s issue.” Chisholm pointed out that both men and women are harmed by unfair labor practices. How did she develop her argument that “sex prejudice cuts both ways?” Why did she mention the Selective Service Act and alimony laws?
  • Paragraph 19: In this paragraph, Chisholm continued to build her argument that the ERA was not just a “women’s issue.” What oppositional argument did she address and refute? What did existing laws assume about women? Laws distinguishing between the sexes were often written to “protect” women workers and to ensure that the government was looking out for their best interests. Yet Chisholm argued that supposed protective legislation actually harmed both women and What did she mean when she asked: “No one would condone exploitation. But what does sex have to do with it?” How did she make the case that “working conditions and hours that are harmful to women are harmful to men,” and that “laws setting employment limitations on the basis of sex are irrational?”
  • Paragraph 20: Chisholm went on to summarize her argument, declaring that “this is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law.” The emphasis here is on how distinctions between the sexes were “outmoded” and based on “pre‐scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology.” What did she mean by “pro-scientific,” and do you think she made a convincing case that such laws were “relics of the past?”
  • Paragraphs 21-24: How did Chisholm wrap up her speech? What did she mean by saying, “…there were no black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers—a great pity, on both counts.” Chisholm issued a powerful call to action, encouraging her fellow Members of Congress to see themselves as completing the work of the founders. What was that work? And how did Chisholm suggest that the Constitution fell short of its promise?
  • Paragraph 25-26: Chisholm ended her speech by quoting renowned law professor Leo Kanowitz to make the point that laws can sometimes influence how people think about themselves and their fellow citizens. Why do you think she ended by emphasizing the social and psychological effects rather than the legal effects of the ERA?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Have students imagine that they are a 21st Century congressperson giving a five-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives urging Congress to the pass the ERA. What are their arguments for passing the amendment? What opposing arguments will they need to anticipate and how will they refute them? Have them draft a speech and deliver it to your class.
  • Although more than half the U.S. population, women have never made up more than about 24 percent of the U.S. Congress. Why do students suppose this is? What more could be done to encourage women to seek political leadership in this country? What specific changes would be needed to increase women’s representation in our political system?
  • Have students write a research paper where they either: a) compare the natural rights arguments from woman suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Ida B. Wells to those that Chisholm articulated in 1970; or b) compare the arguments offered by civil rights leaders like Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, or John Lewis to those offered by Chisholm in her equal rights speech. Have them identify both the similarities and differences in these arguments.