The Hundred-Year Fight
By Jean Godden
It's great to live in a country with a Constitution that protects our rights and freedoms. But hey, wait a minute, it turns out that the U. S. Constitution only protects the rights of some people -- men.
America's 162 million women, 51 percent of the population, are not entitled to equal rights. Women are second-class citizens. And the Equal Rights Amendment (so-called ERA) that would correct that cruel inequity has been awaiting ratification for decades.
In case you've forgotten: The drive to approve the amendment began a hundred years ago while the 19th Amendment (votes for women) was passing. Suffragist Alice Paul thought more was needed to achieve equality. She and Crystal Eastman of the National Women's Party authored the ERA and managed to get it introduced to Congress in 1923.
The amendment's main section is simple and clear-cut: "Equal rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
Sadly, after introduction the ERA languished in Congress. It wasn't until 1971 when Rep. Martha Griffith, a Michigan Democrat, convinced her colleagues to pull the amendment from the crusty House Judiciary Committee, that things began to happen. Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan were stirring women's liberation and the timing seemed right. The amendment got House approval on Oct. 12, 1971; Senate approval came in March, 1972. As states rushed to ratify the amendment -- three-fourths would be needed -- it seemed women would at last win equal rights.
But then the opposition sprang into action. Conservative groups, led by the late Phyllis Schlafy, an Illinois lawyer/housewife, said the amendment would lead to coed restrooms, women being drafted, same-sex marriage and women denied alimony and child custody. Schlafy's fearmongering defeated ratification in several states, including her own state of Illinois.
Ratification stalled at 35 states, with 38 needed. Even a time extension -- Congress granted seven years, then added three more -- didn't help. The ERA seemed dead, equal rights denied.
Recently however, thanks to women's marches, #MeToo and the pink wave, there have been hopeful stirrings. Nevada and Illinois ratified, bringing the total to 37 states, leaving only one more needed. In January, the Virginia Senate approved, but GOP lawmakers in the House of Deputies defeated the move toward ratification. Virginia's 2019 legislative session ended in February, along with hopes for revival this year. Things look bleak in remaining holdout states (most in the South), with only Florida and North Carolina mentioned as possiblities.
Meanwhile, social changes have transformed the lives of American women to the extent that some old opposition points are no longer at issue. After the ERA stalled, legislators passed a bevy of laws that have opened doors for women
Advocates however point to gaps in existing laws and to Supreme Court decisions that have limited enforcement particularly in areas of domestic violence, sexual harassment and equal pay. The lack of constitutional equal pay protection has fed the gender pay gap. At its present glacial pace, men and women will achieve pay equity in two centuries.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has worked tirelessly to expand equal rights, has said that women have come "almost as far" under the 14th amendment as under the ERA. But she still believes an amendment would have practical and symbolic value. She has said, "I would like to be able to take out my pocket Constitution and say that the equal citizenship stature of men and women is a fundamental tenet of our society like free speech.
Justice Ginsburg is not alone in her hopes. Many of us second-class citizens (aka women) would welcome the protection of explicit constitutional language. People -- men and women alike -- would be better off if our Constitution, our fundamental law, would merely say "no discrimination on the basis of sex."