Not long after Frances “Poppy” Northcutt started working in the U.S. space program in the 1960s, she experienced what she has described as her “big awakening” about the need for a social justice movement focused on empowering women.
“About three months into the job, it occurred to me that I was as smart as these guys that were making about two or three times as much as I was,” Northcutt recalled during a 1995 panel discussion at the University of Houston. “By six months, I was doing as much work as they were and it had as much technical merit to it. I think that was really the point where I had a big awakening and thought, ‘This is not fair, this is not right,’ and I started taking action.”
The stirrings of discontent felt by Northcutt and thousands of other women would grow into a cause known to scholars as “second-wave feminism,” and to most Americans as “women’s lib.”
Northcutt would go on to be named Houston’s first “women’s advocate” by then-Mayor Fred Hofheinz in 1974 and to lead the Houston and state chapters of the National Organization for Women. These achievements came on the heels of her pioneering role as the first woman to work in NASA’s mission control center. In 1970, she shared a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award with the rest of the team that brought the Apollo 13 crew safely back to earth.
Today, at 79, Northcutt works as a Houston-based criminal defense attorney and election judge. Her passion for the feminist cause hasn’t cooled; she flew from Houston to Washington, D.C. at the end of June to participate in a NOW conference, tweeting out images of poll results showing that 62 percent of likely voters support the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban discrimination based on sex.
The amendment is a century old – it was written by two suffragists and unveiled at a church in Seneca Falls, N.Y. on July 21, 1923. It remains unratified.
An energized movement
Northcutt shares the dismay of fellow progressives over recent developments such as the 2022 Supreme Court ruling overturning its 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which established the right to an abortion, and the quick action by legislators in Texas and other states to outlaw or severely restrict the procedure. At the same time, she sees these events as powerful motivators for women still determined to achieve key goals of the women’s movement, including passage of the ERA.
“All of that, I think, is going to energize a lot of groups, and it will energize the women’s rights groups as well,” Northcutt said in a recent interview with the Houston Landing. “Young women have suddenly had the right to abortion taken away. I mean, there’s nothing that wakes you up as much as having your rights taken away.”
Northcutt noted that a recent petition drive to guarantee abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution gathered more than 700,000 signatures – almost double the number needed to place the item on a referendum ballot.
She hopes the anger triggered by the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, along with steps taken by Republican leaders in several states to limit LGBTQ+ rights and to withhold certain books from school or public libraries, will restore some of the energy that surged through the women’s movement in 1977, when Houston hosted the first federally funded National Women’s Conference. From Nov. 18 to 21, 2,000 delegates and as many as 20,000 observers gathered at the downtown Sam Houston Coliseum – now the site of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Journalists from around the world covered speeches by feminist icons such as Betty Friedan and other prominent women. Ratification of the ERA was a key goal of conference leaders. Northcutt worked behind the scenes as a special conference coordinator, making sure the events ran smoothly.
Today, the women’s movement still has a critical mass; millions of Americans, including an estimated 25,000 in Houston, participated in the “women’s march” in January 2017. The election of President Donald Trump, who had admitted to kissing and groping women without their consent, was a driving force for the march. Much of the nation’s attention, though, has been focused on related but distinct causes such as demands for racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights.
An unfulfilled goal
The ERA, meanwhile, remains an unfulfilled goal of Northcutt and other feminists. The amendment fell three states short of the 38 needed to ratify it by a 1982 deadline imposed by Congress. Northcutt planned to participate in a demonstration in support of the ERA at the recent D.C. conference. The rally was canceled, however, because of poor air quality caused by wildfires in Canada.
For Northcutt and her sisters-in-arms, the 1977 Houston conference was a heady experience. But it also fueled opposition that began to slow the momentum of the feminist movement, said Elizabeth Gregory, the director of the University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. Led by conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, some 15,000 ERA opponents rallied in Houston during the conference, denouncing abortion, lesbian rights and the ERA.
“Having that big, visible process spurred the backlash,” Gregory said. While the ERA initially enjoyed bipartisan support that led to quick ratification by legislatures in many states, including Texas, “1977 was this pivotal moment in creating this division around feminism in the United States,” she said. Schlafly and other opponents argued that other laws gave women sufficient protection and that the ERA would subject women to military conscription. Catholic Church organizations urged defeat of the amendment based on the church’s opposition to abortion.
To some extent, Northcutt said, the national focus on women’s rights has diminished because “it sort of looks like we’ve won. Many people think the ERA is actually part of the Constitution.” Yet major gender disparities linger – women in the workforce today are paid 83.7 percent of what men in comparable jobs earn, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, no women served in Congress; the figure was 3 percent at the time of the 1977 conference and is now 28 percent, according to Gregory.
Northcutt said most of the legal developments beneficial to women, such as those mandating better access to credit and banking services, have been statutory – that is, enacted through laws passed by Congress or state legislatures. These laws are more vulnerable to repeal than a constitutional amendment such as the ERA would be, Northcutt said.
Ratifying the ERA
On Jan. 31 this year, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass, introduced a resolution calling for removal of the 1982 ratification deadline for the ERA. Among the co-sponsors was Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston. Although three states ratified the amendment after the 1982 deadline, five states have rescinded their ratification, a move proponents say is legally questionable.
Garcia could not be reached for comment for this story. In a statement issued when the resolution was introduced, Garcia recalled visiting the Texas Legislature as a college student to urge ratification of the ERA. “We must eliminate the arbitrary deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, so we can finally prohibit discrimination under the Constitution,” Garcia said in the statement.
The Senate version of the resolution failed, 51-47, last April. Although a previous version passed the House in 2021, the resolution introduced this year has not moved forward in the lower chamber.
Robin Paoli, who led the effort to organize the 2017 Houston Women’s March, said it’s important to take the long view in assessing the importance of the ERA in the broader fight against discrimination.
“I personally believe that the long journey toward ratification is a testament to how badly this is needed,” said Paoli, the owner of a Houston communications consulting firm. While opponents may argue that if the ERA were truly needed, it would have happened already, “the opposite is true,” Paoli said.
“The lack of ratification is a testament to how deeply ingrained discrimination against women is in our society,” she said.