For women of my generation, the push to pass and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) seems almost mythical. We were just wee little ones, or maybe not even born yet, when the movement was at its height. Today, many of us think the ERA is already the law of the land. Some of us probably think it’s not necessary at all.
Here are the facts: the ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but came to a head in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, as a national women’s rights movement brought the issue to the forefront. Although controversial, the amendment itself is surprisingly simple:
- Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
- Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
- Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The ERA passed in 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. North Carolina was one of 15 states that failed to ratify the ERA. The House voted 61-55 to ratify in 1977, but the Senate never agreed.
The amendment was three states shy of the 38 needed for ratification by its 1982 deadline, and it slipped into the background.
But a core group of women and activists never lost their passion or commitment for passing the ERA and have reignited the issue. A national movement is working toward ratification in the remaining 15 states, while also pursuing two distinct legislative paths in Congress – lifting the 1982 deadline and starting the ratification process from scratch.
Here in North Carolina, House Bill 166 was introduced this session by Reps. Carla Cunningham, Mickey Michaux, Susan Fisher, and Beverly Earle. It was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, but Chairman Leo Daughtry refused to schedule a hearing. In the Senate, S184 was introduced by Sens. Floyd McKissick and Terry Van Duyn. Because the ERA is a constitutional amendment, the Senate must hear it. With enough votes, it will go to the House.
Why all the fuss? Why should we even care about an amendment that has been in the works for nearly 100 years and has been sitting idle for 30 years?
It’s simple: because women still are not guaranteed equal protection under the Constitution. One can look at the comments of two prominent Supreme Court Justices to see that is the case.
Justice Antonin Scalia told a California Lawyer in January 2011 in response to a question about the 14th Amendment: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that.”
And in a forum in 2014, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked how she would amend the Constitution, if they could. “If I could choose an amendment to add to this Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said. “It means that women are people equal in stature before the law,” she said. “We have achieved that through legislation, but legislation can be repealed. It can be altered… That principle belongs in our Constitution. It is in every constitution written since the Second World War.”
It is true that women have made great strides over the years, entering the workforce in record numbers, getting elected to state and national offices and serving on the front lines in our military. But we only need to think about the glass ceilings that still exist, the wage gap (still at 78 cents on the dollar) that persists and the continued assault on women’s reproductive rights to realize that something is still missing.
The arguments against the ERA have also shifted over the years but continue to pit women against each other. Where the arguments once focused on losing certain protections for women (like shorter work hours), enforcing traditional gender roles and protecting same-sex institutions, today the prevailing argument is that the amendment is not necessary.
Opponents argue that women are treated equally under the law and that legislation has been used to make changes as needed. Some conservative women argue that it is actually demeaning to think that women need “special protection” in the Constitution. And then there is the economic argument that the ERA would make women too expensive to hire, costing employers and threatening women’s jobs.
Will this time be different for the ERA? Will today’s women join together to chase the elusive amendment? Will social media and the organizing tools available make the difference? Only time will tell.
Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 100 years to find out.
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.