Executive Editor Matt Sutherland Interviews Kate Kelly, Author of Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the US Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment
For women, minorities, all other marginalized groups, and every big family’s youngest sibling, equality is the ultimate dream—though one that never quite becomes real. But not for lack of trying.
Indeed, countless oppressed citizens have fought the good fight for equality throughout history. And while the United States has a better record than most countries, our “all are equal under the law” constitutional promise has proven to be a bit of a sham for many on the edges of society. Why can’t we get this right?
Today, we’re excited to talk equal rights with Kate Kelly, author of Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the US Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment and one of the bravest feminists the country has ever known.
Foreword’s Executive Editor Matt Sutherland pitched the following handful of interview questions and Kate was gracious enough to respond.
First things first, please explain what the Equal Rights Amendment is, why it still isn’t ratified, and why the original Constitution of 1787 was so lacking in rights for women, for all its “We the People” boasting?
The framers of the US Constitution left women out intentionally—simple as that. It’s much easier to maintain power if you can automatically eliminate 50 percent of the population from your competition! The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is an attempt to fix that foundational mistake. The ERA is not ratified because our constitution is one of the hardest in the world to change. It has only been edited twenty seven times so far and ten of those were all at once at the very beginning. Amending the constitution is a herculean task no matter the subject, but women’s rights is always the most difficult thing to achieve.
What recently happened in Virginia, regarding the ERA?
In 2020, Virginia became the 38th state (last required by Article V of the US Constitution) to ratify the ERA.
You write that our founding fathers had a wonderful example of a “flourishing democracy with women in high leadership positions” in the form of the nearby Iroquois Confederacy, the French name given to the Haudenosaunee. Did Native Americans, and their system of governance, influence the creation of our Constitution? Was a gender-inclusive government ever seriously discussed at the Constitutional Convention?
Yes, it is widely known that the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee Confederacy was used as a blueprint for the idea of federalism the framers of the US Constitution drafted into their new form of government. Specifically the idea that independent entities (tribes, or states) could band together for the common good and defense, while still maintaining self-governance. This was officially recognized by the US Congress itself. There was no discussion of gender-inclusivity at the Constitutional Convention, but the wives of some of the framers continued to urge them to include women, nevertheless.
What about Native women? Did any rise up to join the equality conversation back in the day?
What we now know about the activities of specific women in the 1700s is very limited because women have been systematically written out of history. This is even more true of Native women, because they were not considered human by many of those who kept historical records. This is part of the reason I chose to highlight Molly Brant in the book—she spoke English and was married to a high ranking British official, so her story was more well documented than other women of her day. But, what we do know of her is not in her own words. This makes it difficult to know what Native women of the day were doing to contribute to the conversation. What we do know is that settler women were inspired by the equal status Native women around them had in their own societies. They saw and read about native women leaders and it helped them know that another, less sexist, world was possible. It already existed all around them.
Ordinary Equality brings to light the extraordinary lives of little-known women like Matilda Joslyn Gage, Crystal Eastman, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Paul, Pauli Murray, Martha Wright Griffiths, Patsy Takemoto Mink, and many more. Please talk about your research? Who did write about these women while they were alive and preserved their stories for you to find?
The reasons the accomplishments of these incredible pioneers aren’t more widely known is not for lack of them trying to document their own lives and efforts. Many of the subjects I cover in Ordinary Equality wrote extensively about their experiences. For example, Matilda Joslyn Gage was a collaborator with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in writing the History of Woman Suffrage, where she wrote about her own contributions and others to the suffrage movement. Gage also owned her own newspaper called the The National Citizen and Ballot Box. Pauli Murray wrote two autobiographies: Proud Shoes: The Story Of An American Family in 1956, and Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage in 1987. In the case of Patsy Mink, her daughter Gwendolyn became a scholar and has written and spoken about her extensively. These stories are “little-known” only because they have been systematically discounted.
Speaking of Matilda Joslyn, tell us about the disgraceful “Matilda Effect”? Were there any enlightened publishers out there who treated women writers fairly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? And what about the “Effect” on women scientists working in universities at the time?
The “Matilda Effect” is when a man takes credit for a scientific milestone actually achieved by a woman. It’s very common. One example is Nettie Stevens, who discovered the XY sex determination system, but a man named Thomas Morgan is often erroneously credited with her discovery because he was a prominent geneticist at the time. Ironically, she was never given credit for discovering sex chromosomes—because of her sex!
The long fight to claim the right for women to vote is fairly well known, but less well known is the radical—at the time—effort by some women to end patriarchy all together. Do you have a story or two to tell about the take-no-prisoners, burn-down-the-system extremists in the early days of the women’s movement?
The least-known issue women reformers advocated for at the turn of the century was the abolition of patriarchy in the church. Suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote Woman, Church, and State decrying the religious origins of patriarchy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton completely re-wrote the Bible in her Woman’s Bible and attacked Christianity as the root of women’s subordinate role in society. Those ladies were radical!
You begin chapter 8 with an extraordinary quote from Pauli Murray, that speaks to an issue every engaged citizen faces. Here’s the full paragraph for context: “Long before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ Pauli Murray insisted on the indivisibility of their identity as a Black person and a woman. S/he explained that s/he came to every problem as the sum of all their parts: “And since as a human being I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into a Negro at one time, a woman at another, or a worker at another, I must find a unifying principle in all these movements to which I can adhere. … This, it seems to me, is not only good politics but may be the price of survival.”
I’m not sure exactly how to frame a question about that bombshell idea, but I’m hoping you can talk about how you and other women leaders resist being fragmented, so as to maintain your full powers?
Feminist theorist and author Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” What I hope to accomplish with Ordinary Equality is to help readers realize that these ERA advocates were full, complex human beings who were involved in many struggles for justice and human rights. We cannot gain a little power by putting others down—early suffragists tried that and it didn’t work. The best, and only, way forward is to work together to make sure even the most vulnerable among us are not left behind.
Plainly, the average eighteen-year-old American woman today is better off than her counterpart of 1922—a fact that many young women currently take for granted, unfortunately, because the battle continues and the deceased veterans of the long war for equality need to be commemorated, as you’ve done with this book. What do you have to say to someone, woman or man, who says that feminism is a thing of the past, that the war has mostly been won? And for those inclined, how can readers get involved in ratifying the ERA?
Equality is not a feeling. In every measurable way women and men are not equal in this country—we don’t receive equal pay, there are not equal numbers of women at any level of governance, women do not get equal opportunities, particularly in male-dominated fields … and the list goes on. We haven’t reached full equality, despite our gains, and so we must keep fighting.