New Urgency to Pass the Equal Rights Amendment

New Urgency to Pass the Equal Rights Amendment

We all thought the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a done deal—that’s how naive we were. Proposed nearly a century ago, the ERA is periodically propelled forward. Some of us remember the National Organization for Women (NOW) passionately advocating for the ERA’s passage in the 70s. But the clock ran out, and only 35 of the required 38 states had signed on.

Today’s political climate and the #MeToo movement are adding renewed urgency

Within the past three years Nevada, Illinois and Virginia became the 36th, 37th and 38th states to pass the ERA, but it must pass additional legal hurdles before it can be added to the U.S. Constitution. The biggest hurdle? “It’s hard to get equal rights when you don’t have equal rights,” says Julie C. Suk, a dean and professor of sociology at the City University of New York. “Many people do not realize women have no guaranteed equal rights under the U.S. Constitution.”— Iris Y. Martinez, Illinois state senator.

What does the ERA mean for women? It would:

  • Require states to intervene in cases of gender violence, guard against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and motherhood.
  • Provide a federal guarantee of equal pay. Women still make 79 cents to a man’s dollar. Women of color take home even less. Women who are pushed out of work while they are pregnant have no legal protections. Only 17% of American workers have access to paid parental leave.

Updating the Constitution is the only failsafe way to root out legal gender-based discrimination.

40 years of deadlines and extensions; Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) suggests starting all over

The 92nd Congress, which passed the ERA in 1972, gave state legislatures seven years to ratify the amendment, later extending the deadline to ten years. Several groups of legislators in the House and Senate have passed legislation to dispense with the ratification deadline. Some advocates, such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, suggest that supporters start all over. The Washington-based ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality seems to think there is enough momentum to overcome hurdles. It has more than 100 groups as members working in concert with dozens of lead organizations.

“There is a healthy combination of national coordination and local grassroots activism,” says Jessica Neuwirth, an international women’s rights lawyer at Hunter College’s Public Policy Institute in New York City and the coalition’s co-president.

Support is almost universal, she says, referencing a 2015 coalition survey. “ERA Coalition polling shows that 94% of Americans and 99% of millennials support a constitutional sex equality amendment,” she says.

Advocating for paid family medical leave and equal pay

Jennifer Carroll Foy, a lawyer in the Washington, D.C. area, who this year helped make her state the 38th to ratify the ERA, gave birth to twin sons during her successful campaign for Virginia’s House of Delegates. When she was a student, a Supreme Court decision enabled her to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, a public college that had refused to admit women.

“I know the struggles of simultaneously being a mother and working a full-time job”

That’s why I am fighting to institute paid family medical leave policies, fair scheduling laws and equal pay for equal work policies. I also believe that we must ensure all women have access to affordable birth control and cancer screenings.”

Low wages and violence toward women tend to go hand in hand. Working in low-paid service-industry jobs, women are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment and may not be able to afford to quit.

Not all women want the ERA; who remembers Phyllis Schlafly?

Pro-ERA activists of the ‘70s hoped the issues would all be sorted out by now. When Congress sent the ERA out to the states, dozens signed on right away, but opposition mobilized, stoking fear that it would upend societal norms. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative leader and popular author of that era, suggested the ERA would set women back. She organized the Stop Taking Our Privileges (STOP) ERA campaign.

In the late 1970s, Schlafly became a constitutional lawyer, sometimes opening remarks with “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight.” The organization claimed the proposed amendment would take away sexual assault laws, alimony and the tendency for courts to award custody to mothers in a divorce. They balked at a military that could draft women and warned that single-sex restrooms would be eliminated.

There’s been a natural evolution

Some of the privileges Schlafly fought to preserve have evolved naturally without the ERA in place:

  • Women of means may be the ones paying support in a divorce, and shared parental custody is considered ideal.
  • Single-stall restrooms increasingly are gender neutral.
  • Women now account for more than 1 in 6 service members in the four military branches under the Department of Defense.

“Sex equality is guaranteed in most constitutions in the world, including every constitution written since World War II,” Neuwirth says.

Justice Ginsburg has said the ERA’s passage is important to her because she wants to be able to pull out her pocket Constitution to show her granddaughter that the foundational laws of this country ensure all women are equal to men. Sexual equality is something that Ginsburg demonstrates every single day in her role on the Supreme Court.

Equal rights is a topic that surfaced recently at one of our CDP offices

This was a conversation with one of our clients, a baby boomer in her 70s. She had been reading about the ERA resurfacing as a political issue. The irony, of course, is that we had all assumed the ERA had passed, even though we know that women don’t have equal rights. She remembered Phyllis Schlafly, Eleanor Smeal and NOW. Ruth Bader Ginsberg now advocates rebooting the ratification process. The #MeToo movement just may have provided enough momentum for this to pass.

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