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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

North Carolina Commission on the Status of Women and debate over the ERA

Johnson describes her involvement on the North Carolina Commission on the Status of Women and its subsequent report during the early 1960s. According to Johnson, the Commission and its success in drawing attention to women's status in the state led to a "groundswell of support for the ERA" during the early 1970s. Although a strong advocate of women's rights, Johnson explains here why she believed the ERA to be unnecessary while simultaneously discussing why others believed the contrary.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, July 1, 1974. Interview G-0029-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
I wanted to ask you about the Commission on the Status of Women that you worked on. What was your feeling about how that turned out? There is a final report that was put out . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, there is. Have you seen it?
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I haven't.
GUION JOHNSON:
I have a copy of the report that I will try to find for you, if you would be at all interested in seeing it.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Yes.
GUION JOHNSON:
I think that it was considered to be one of the best of the state reports. Some of the state reports, for example, the Georgia state report, which was late in coming, was just practically a rewrite of the national report. But Anne Scott did an excellent job [for North Carolina].
MARY FREDERICKSON:
She was chairman?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, of this commission. We met a number of times, we endorsed, we re-examined each report, she divided the responsibilities among each of the members of the Board and was utterly amazed when I said, "I can't do this by myself." I was to talk about women's voluntary organization. I said, "I wouldn't presume to write this report. Let me have fifteen or twenty key women in the state to help me write it, bring them in and discuss the points and assign different areas for them to write and I can bring in the report. But I would not be so presumptious as to write the report." She said, "But we don't have any money to finance a large group of women like this." I said, "You don't need any money. These women are very glad to come in at their own expense and do this work as an act of voluntaryism. Just to participate in this discussion." And she said, "All right, but no funds are available." "Well enough." So, she let me set up a committee. I had about twenty-four key leaders and we met two or three times and had a secretary who took minutes and duplicated them herself. She had a mimeograph machine in Asheville. Everytime she came down to Chapel Hill for these meetings, it cost her fifty dollars and then she went back and did the mimeographing and sent it out and paid the postage to get this material out. So, we had a cooperative report. For our section. From their reports, I then wrote about ninety or a hundred pages and turned that in and they were overwhelmed. "We can't publish that much material. It's very good as background material for us, but please boil this down to about twenty pages." Which I did. Even so, Anne took parts of my material and sprinkled it throughout the report, which was allright with me, as long as it was there, because no one was given any particular credit for having done any particular part. And altogether, I thought that it was a very good report. And then Anne and I went to a meeting of the legislative committee in the fall after the report had come out, to discuss with the legislative committee and the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Public Health, etc. what we might do to propose a lasting commission. And as a result of this, a commission was established. And neither Anne nor I was appointed to this commission, but we didn't expect to be and thought that it would be better not to be on the commission, to let it come spontaneously from the legislature.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did many of the states do this?
GUION JOHNSON:
Some have and I think that some towns have set up . . . for example, Salisbury had a commission on the status of women that brought in a report. I think that Atlanta has had a commission on the status of women. I think so. But this has occurred only within the last five or six years, perhaps. There have been these various local commissions as well as the states. I think that every state, I'm not sure, but I think that every state has had a state Commission on the Status of Women and of course, out of this grew the drive for ERA. Martha Griffiths wasn't getting too far with her proposal for the Equal Rights Amendment, but out of the concern of the group, the National Commission established by President Kennedy and the state commissions and then the local commissions, there grew a groundswell of support for the ERA.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How do you feel about that?
GUION JOHNSON:
Well, I think that we don't need that legislation. Actually, the Fourteenth Amendment protects us. We have the Civil Rights Act to do the same thing. But as a focus on the rights of women, perhaps it's needed. I know that there is great concern on the part of conservative lawyers and judges that women will be harmed and women who have worked bitterly and long to get special legislation protecting women and children are very much opposed to ERA. They think that women will be left without any rights at all. That yes, men and women are equal, would be equal under ERA, but that men would be more equal than women. And this is their fear. I know that I have talked to Chief Justice Bobbit and Justice Susie Sharp to get their opinons and they are both very much concerned, because they handle many cases and . . . I don't know what Justice Bobbit's experience was, but I'm sure that he was a superior court judge before he went to the Supreme Court. They have tried so many cases in which women have got the short end of the stick, that they. (and have been so grateful for legislation protecting the rights of women) that they are very hesitant to see these rights given up. So, I think that they would feel happier if we pushed the Fourteenth Amendment, applied it to women and implemented the Civil Rights Act which includes no discrimination on the basis of sex . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
On individual cases as they came up?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes. And now that HEW is beginning Affirmative Action, they think that this is going to greatly improve the rights of women, and that this is the most solid way of establishing equality than to arouse the alarms by passing an Equal Rights Amendment. As far as I concerned, ERA might bring about the abolition of discrimination of women more quickly than would be a gradual process. There again, I'm for something dramatic, you need something dramatic sometimes to bring change. For example, the North Carolina Constitution of 1868, written by the carpetbaggers, gave women equal property rights, but the amendment was ignored and as Justice Walter Clark pointed out in a speech that he made to the Federation of Women's Clubs 'way back I think in 1914 when they were meeting in convention in Fayetteville, he said, "You have all of the rights. We didn't need the Martin Act, which gives you the right to will your property, because the Constitution of 1868 gave you that right, but the judges who administer the law did not approve of the Constitution of 1868. The Constitution was written by alien people whom most of the judges hated and, therefore, they ignored. So, it has been necessary to have a succession of legislative acts giving you these rights." And the same thing is happening nationally, you see, although the Fourteenth Amendment was passed long ago and . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And has been totally ignored.
GUION JOHNSON:
Has been totally ignored. And even the Civil Rights Amendments, as my little essay on The Changing Status of Southern Women pointed out in a footnote, immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were ways being sought to evade, and I cited that Doubleday had this little publication which was available and being circulated to industry pointing out the ways of evading the Civil Rights Act.