Tip O’Neill & the ERA

In the right-hand column is Thomas "Tip" P. O'Neill's yearbook photo from the <a href = "https://archive.org/details/subturriundertow1936bost">1936 Sub Turri</a>.

In the right-hand column is Thomas “Tip” P. O’Neill’s yearbook photo from the 1936 Sub Turri.

On January 21, 1971 Tip O’Neill  (9 Dec. 1912-5 Jan. 1994) wrote a fairly lengthy letter to Miss Toby Ruth Hyman of Cambridge, MA outlining his reasons for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, which had at that time passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.  O’Neill sat on the all important Rules Committee in the House and received voluminous correspondence on the ERA, much of which is contained in the Legislative Files section of the Thomas P. O’Neill Papers,  at the Burns Library at Boston College.  Burns is home to the University Archives and the BC Libraries’ Special Collections; because of O’Neill’s close relationship with the institution (BC ‘36 and recipient of the Ignatius Medal in 1981) the papers were gifted to the special collections on January 28, 1988.  This blog post highlights a particular portion of the collection relating to O’Neill’s correspondence with various constituents on the ERA.

O’Neill rather famously believed that “all politics is local” and this sentiment is evident in his correspondence with his constituents.  He was also a staunch, lifelong liberal (he publicly opposed the Vietnam War in 1967, earlier than most Democrats, for example) and spent much of his career fighting for social justice causes, large and small, local and national.  So his support for the ERA is no surprise.  It furthermore appears likely that while his staff doubtless conducted much of his correspondence on his behalf, it is also likely that on issues he cared deeply about he responded personally in at least some instances.  His support for women’s issues went far beyond the ERA; knowing that he had a reputation for wit and playfulness, the letters in his papers often have a tone that leads the reader to believe it is O’Neill himself speaking.

A selection of the correspondence that Speaker O'Neill received regarding the Equal Rights Ammendment, Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Congressional Papers, CA2009-01, Box 190, Folder 2.

A selection of the correspondence that Speaker O’Neill received regarding the Equal Rights Amendment, Box 190, Folder 2, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Congressional Papers, CA.2009.001, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In the letter mentioned above, O’Neill is responding to Toby Ruth Hyman, a senior at Radcliffe College writing an honors thesis on the ERA.  She asks a series of questions about such things as legislative procedures, which outside groups supported the ERA and whether or not O’Neill heard from them, and also why he supported it himself.  She closes with a vaguely desperate appeal to receive a response quickly due to her need to start writing.  Her letter is dated January 14, 1971; a week’s turnaround from a famous Congressman seems impressive under the circumstances.  And O’Neill’s response was comprehensive.  He begins by stating that the ERA was opposed in the main by constitutionalists, traditionalists, and labor organizations.  (This last did indeed try to argue among other things that women would be able to work at jobs involving heavy lifting under the ERA, an argument that, judging from the O’Neill papers, caused many women to want to tear their hair out.  This is a point I’ll return to.)

O’Neill then interestingly goes on to credit the Women’s Liberation Movement for the success of the ERA in the House Rules Committee, from which it had to be discharged before it could be debated on the floor and passed.  He acknowledges receiving a great deal of mail on the subject and writes that the victory was both a practical and a symbolic accomplishment.  In short it is an admirable, thorough but succinct, summary of his views on the subject.

While most of the ERA letter writers were women, men chimed in on this as well, almost all in favor.  Otto T. Solbrig, professor of biology at Harvard, wrote to make a more broadly environmental and social case for passage than most.  After pointing to pollution, crowded streets and schools, and inadequate housing as major problems for society, he writes, “If we relegate women to the role of housewife without offering meaningful and satisfying alternatives, we will not alter the present pattern of population.  For this reason, as well as for a sense of justice and fair play, I feel the Equal Rights Amendment should be passed.”  (October 1, 1971)

The bulk of the Tip O'Neill Congressional Papers are stored in one physical location in fairly uniform boxes at the Burns Library. Here is a glimpse of what they look like in the stacks, a view usually only available to Burns Library staff.  However, these papers and many other collections are accessible to all researchers in the Burns Library Reading Room.

The bulk of the Tip O’Neill Congressional Papers are stored in one physical location in fairly uniform boxes at the Burns Library. Here is a glimpse of what they look like in the stacks, a view usually only available to Burns Library staff. However, these papers and many other collections are accessible to all researchers in the Burns Library Reading Room.

Others took a more florid approach.  On September 23, 1971, one Liz Carpenter opened her plea as follows, “As you know, through the years women have been stepped upon, wept upon and slept upon.”  She too then references the “…phony issue of ‘protective legislation for women…” arguing that it has “fogged up” the debate.  “It is high time,” she writes, “men recognized that some ‘protective’ laws treat women like idiots, and others keep women out of jobs where they’d lift no more than a three-year-old does.”  To this Tip wrote, “I am in receipt of your note concerning the Equal Rights Amendment.  Honey, you’re sumpin’…I’m for it!”  This writer does not know whether or not those two writers knew each other.

The O’Neill Papers is a large collection (over 400 archival boxes, or 428.25 linear feet) and contains documents of interest to many different topics of research.  The O’Neill Papers are available for research, please click here for more information about doing research at the Burns Library or contact us via e-mail at burnsref@bc.edu or by phone at 617-552-4861. The finding aid for the O’Neill Papers is also available online at http://www.bc.edu/oneillfindingaid.

  • Sarah Hogan, Microforms/Government Documents Librarian, O’Neill Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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