Vol. 32 No. 1 (January 2022) pp. 11-13

WE THE WOMEN: THE UNSTOPPABLE MOTHERS OF THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT, by Julie C. Suk. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2020. 233pp. Hardback $22.99. ISBN: 1-5107-5591-8.

Reviewed by Jennifer L. Brinkley, Department of Administration and Law, University of West Florida. Email: jbrinkley@uwf.edu.

In WE THE WOMEN, Professor Julie C. Suk asks a critical question: “What does it say about the United States as a nation, and the US Constitution as its fundamental law, if it permits a constitutional amendment guaranteeing sex equality to die because of a procedural time bar that men in a dangerously imbalanced Senate created?” (p. 125). This book is a timely read and should be required reading for anyone interested in the fight for equality.

Professor Suk has created a thorough and meticulously researched timeline of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It is an intergenerational explanation of the links that have bound women activists, and male allies, from the Eighteenth century through today. Since its creation, the US Constitution has struggled with the idea of sex equality. The book reminds the reader that enduring change truly requires generations of activists fighting for that change to occur. It begins with the origins of the ERA fight, growing from women’s first realization of the harms of romantic paternalism. Women wanted equal rights—they wanted to vote, own property, execute contracts, and become autonomous. Professor Suk discusses the pioneers who organized an effort to achieve the right to vote, but also to achieve recognition of sex equality within the US Constitution. Through the Declaration of Sentiments, presented at the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott worked to identify the many ways that women were excluded from exercising the same rights men enjoyed. Mott offered a resolution, adopted at the convention, “for the securing to women an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.” The convention also launched the women’s suffrage movement, which would work for decades to finally see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920.

Professor Suk divides the book into four main parts. Part I covers the origins of the ERA. It examines the pioneers, instigators, and reformers of that historical period. Part II divides the chapters into the globalizers, framers, mothers, and breadmakers. Part III looks at transformations with the change agents and the game changers. And Part IV is topically called Persistence, consisting of the resurrectors, the rectifiers, and the history makers. What is extremely impressive about this book is how detailed the history in each era is. It is extremely well sourced and covers both sides of the ERA fight—the opponents and proponents.

Though the book details the behind the scenes of Congress through the years, it also transports the reader through disappointments and successes at the US Supreme Court. Following the conclusion of the Civil War, advocates sought a finding from the Court that women were equal to men. They wanted the US Supreme Court to apply the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, to cases involving sex discrimination. In BRADWELL V ILLINOIS (1873), the concurring opinion said: “Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” It was clear the activists had a long way to go in persuading those in positions of power that women should possess equal rights as men. It would not be until 1971, in REED V. REED, that the US Supreme Court would permit the application of the Fourteenth Amendment in a sex discrimination case. Part III examines Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advocacy in the 1970s before the US Supreme Court and begins with STRUCK V. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (1971) which is a very important case in the timeline of sex discrimination cases, even though it never received its ultimate day in the US Supreme Court. The book also discusses the timeliness of the STRUCK case pending before the Court as Congress was working to adopt the ERA. It seemed both branches were hesitating while waiting for the other to act regarding the ERA. It is important to understand the context of what was happening at the US Supreme Court, but also what was happening in Congress during the 1970s when Ginsburg was bringing case after case to the Court dealing with sex discrimination. In REED V. REED and FRONTIERO V. RICHARDSON (1973), the US Supreme Court was persuaded by Ginsburg’s arguments, which as Professor Suk notes, aligned closely with the arguments for the ERA. Pauli Murray helped formulate this strategy used by Ginsburg. She advocated for the ERA as she “believed that the ERA could do more than the Fourteenth Amendment to overcome the power imbalance between men and women.” The book convincingly makes the case that Pauli Murray was far ahead of her time with her legal strategies and arguments.

The book carefully discusses the process of sending of the ERA to the states for ratification in 1972 and the timelines associated with this process. Virginia became the thirty-eighth state to ratify the ERA in 2020. This sets up an interesting constitutional situation as the congressionally imposed deadline has lapsed. The book explains the unprecedented nature of this instance and goes further into explaining the significance of the ERA not becoming a part of the US Constitution. It does a great job at presenting a very complex historical record in an accessible fashion. There is a global aspect to the book as well. Other countries have included this type of constitutional provision and the comparative analysis is quite striking. WE THE WOMEN is not too heavy on politics, and it is not too heavy on legal procedure. The book strikes an even balance with both areas and leaves the reader feeling fully informed. The reader is left with a great appreciation for how difficult this fight has been through the years, while being dismayed at political games that have been played with this amendment.

The epilogue brings up an important point: “American people and the lawmakers we elect make choices every day about who we are, and what kind of world we want to make for our children to inherit. These fundamental questions are at stake when deciding what to do about the ERA and its time limit” (p. 172). Professor Suk submits that “Congress can choose to keep the ERA alive” (p. 177). She goes on to argue why Congress should fix the process and accept the amendment. Arguments are made about why the ERA is still needed considering the sex equality jurisprudence accepted by the US Supreme Court. Though the ERA may align closely with what the Fourteenth Amendment has done for sex discrimination cases, it is still very much relevant and important. This book is for a wide audience—those interested in Congressional politics, US Supreme Court jurisprudence, and issues surrounding sex equality. Its subject matter is important as the fight to include sex equality in the Constitution is ongoing. The reader is left with a well-developed viewpoint surrounding the ERA.

Professor Suk writes: “It’s time to give credit to the generations of women who triggered that constitutional change by pushing for the ERA” (p. 181) Perhaps that is what is so endearing about this book. The process of Congressional actors and the strategies presented to the US Supreme Court are incredibly interesting and thought provoking. Questions the reader may have about the past, present, and future of the ERA are clearly answered through the presentation of extensive research. But the true gem of this book is meeting the characters in the ERA story, those who fought for change they would never live to see. Those who continue to fight in Congress and before the Court. Getting to know both the women and men who worked to achieve sex equality is what is so enjoyable about this book.


BRADWELL V. STATE OF ILLINOIS, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873).

FRONTIERO V. RICHARDSON, 411 U.S. 677 (1973).

REED V. REED, 404 U.S. 71 (1971).

STRUCK V. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, 460 F.2d 1372 (9th Cir. 1971).

© Copyright 2021 by author, Jennifer L. Brinkley