Object No.: 1998.58.31
Donor: Ida Jervis
Description: In this photograph by Ida Jervis, women supporting the feminist Jewish publication Lilith magazine rally on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) to the U.S. Constitution. One holds a sign that, reading right-to-left as if written in Hebrew, mixes symbols to represent Jewish women: the Jewish six-pointed star and symbol of Venus commonly used by many feminist groups.
Background: As the nation’s capital, Washington is the destination for people from all over the country to voice their opinions on critical issues in American life. Rallies and protests with tens-of-thousands of people marching through city streets are part of the fabric of life in this city.
For decades, Washington-area photographer Ida Jervis (1917-2014) captured this quality of Washington-area life. Her focus was the local Jewish community and Jews who came to Washington for specific events and causes. From the 1960s through 1980s, Jervis documented seemingly every aspect of Jewish political and social life in the Washington region: civil rights marches, Soviet Jewry rallies, Israel Independence Day celebrations, Holocaust commemorations, exhibition openings, folk concerts, artists at work, and other political and cultural events.
Jervis photographed civic activism around Jewish causes, as well as Jews who were active for other causes. For her, these were all part of the Jewish community’s participation in American civic and political life. “I was a witness as the American Jewish community found its voice,” Jervis noted in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post.
In 2009, Jervis donated the largest collection of her photos to JHSGW (view a sample!). In 2013, her daughter, Margie Jervis, organized a campaign to better preserve the Society’s Ida Jervis Collection including to purchase a fireproof cabinet to house them. Other collections of Jervis’s work and papers are in the American Jewish Archives and the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.
Capturing the 1978 E.R.A. March on Washington, D.C.
Of the many demonstrations that Jervis documented was the E.R.A. March on Washington, D.C. in July 1978.1 Among the 325 delegations to the march were several Jewish organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Some Jewish participants in other delegations self-identified by wearing patches or buttons with Jewish symbols like this woman from Illinois University.
At that time, it was the largest women’s-rights demonstration in U.S. history. Over 100,000 people representing different ethnic and religious communities from across the country marched down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol Building in support of the amendment.
The E.R.A. mandates legal equality for all sexes: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
These participants were among the many first- and second- generation American Jewish women who were attracted to the feminist movement of the 1960s-1970s. They wanted to break down socially-accepted gender norms that hampered women’s equality in American life. They saw one of many solutions to this state of affairs in the creation of federal laws and a constitutional amendment such as the E.R.A., which sought to enshrine equal rights for women in the Constitution.
Emblematic of this group were Susan Weidman Schneider and Aviva Cantor. In 1976, they founded the Jewish feminist journal, Lilith Magazine. Both Schneider and Cantor gravitated toward feminism after childhood involvement in Jewish life. Schneider had been active in her synagogue, Jewish youth groups, Zionist causes, and Yiddish culture in her hometown of Winnipeg, Canada. She attended Brandeis University where she had her “political awakening” about the need to fight for women’s inequality. Cantor, a Bronx, NY, native, grew up attending the orthodox Ramaz Jewish day school. After studying at the Columbia University School of Journalism, she became an active promoter of progressive Jewish causes.
Schneider, Cantor, and their compatriots at the E.R.A. March on Washington were among the millions who help make Washington the stage for national issues. The E.R.A. continues to be one of those issues. Since its introduction in 1923, a succession of representatives has reintroduced the amendment to Congress. Most recently, in 2013, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) reintroduced the E.R.A. in the Senate, and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) sponsored the amendment in the House of Representatives. In spite of overwhelming positive public opinion for the amendment, the E.R.A. has never been ratified by a sufficient number of state legislatures.
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1. National Woman’s Party’s founder, Alice Paul, wrote the E.R.A. in 1923. That year, the amendment was introduced to Congress, but did not pass. It was re-introduced several times subsequently, and passed by Congress in 1972. Congress gave a seven-year deadline for three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify the amendment – required for amending the Constitution. Demonstrators at the 1978 march called on Congress to extend the 1979 deadline. Congress subsequently extended the deadline to 1982, but no additional states voted for ratification.