When Donald Trump boasted to “Access Hollywood” reporter Billy Bush in 2005 about sexually assaulting women, he likely never imagined that his words would galvanize the world’s feminists and set a renewed movement for gender equity into motion. To wit: Not only did millions take to the streets to demand equality within 24 hours of Trump’s inauguration, but a revitalized campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is now underway in the US.
The Amendment, which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” was written 94 years ago by suffragists Crystal Eastman and Alice Paul, activists who understood that the right to vote was an insufficient guarantee of women’s equality. Although their 1923 effort failed to win congressional approval, a half-century later, in 1972, so-called Second Wave feminists successfully pushed 364 Congress members to support the measure. The ERA next went to the states for ratification. By March 1979 — the deadline for 38 state legislatures to approve or reject it — 35 states had opted for authorization. Feminists subsequently lobbied hard to extend the ratification period for another three years, to June 30, 1982. Still, the Amendment stalled.
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Then, decades later, Nevada became the 36th state to pass the ERA on March 1, 2017.
Strategies for Passage
Proponents say that there are two distinct ways to get the amendment enacted.
Jessica Neuwirth, president of the ERA Coalition and author of Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now (The New Press, 2016), told Truthout that Congress can either start over — passing the ERA by a two-third majority in the House and the Senate before sending it back to the states for ratification — or can waive the 1982 approval deadline and allow additional states to pass it, finally providing the 38 votes needed. Bills championing both approaches are pending in the Judiciary Committees of the House and Senate.
“Our view is that whatever works, works,” Neuwirth begins. “We will support either approach. The idea of deadlines for ratification came in with Prohibition, when the 18th Amendment was introduced in 1919. Since then, there has been a seven-year limit for ratification placed on every proposed amendment.” Prior to this, she continues, passage was not bound by time constraints. In fact, it took 203 years — from its introduction in 1789 to it passage in 1992 — for the 27thamendment, which governs congressional salaries, to be approved.
Push for State Ratification
The ERA Coalition — which includes dozens of organizations, including the African American Policy Forum, American Association of University Women, Equal Rights Advocates, Feminist Majority Foundation, Legal Momentum, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Women’s Political Caucus and the YWCA — is organizing in the 14 states that have yet to ratify the Amendment: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.
Widespread support is already evident. A poll conducted by the Coalition and the Fund for Women’s Equality in the summer of 2016 — while Trump was campaigning — found that 96 percent of women and 90 percent of men supported ERA passage; this was true among Democrats and Republicans, as well as among progressives and people who described themselves as “apolitical.” What’s more, 80 percent were flabbergasted to learn that these rights were not already assured.
Perhaps, says Ellie Smeal, cofounder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (feminist.org), this is because people know that the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Violence Against Women Act have been enacted. What they may not know, she continues, is that they’re insufficient.
“All these bills have loopholes,” Smeal explains. “Title IX, for example, only bars gender-based discrimination in school sports if the educational program receives federal assistance and employment protections don’t apply in every workplace. In addition, statutes can be flipped. We want a blanket protection, a statement in the Constitution that women have full and equal protection and that discrimination based on gender is banned across the board.”
Women’s Economic and Social Progress Continues to Lag
NOW President Terry O’Neill agrees. “Women have not yet achieved equality. We’re not even close,” she told me. “We’re just 20 percent of Congress and we’re overrepresented in low-paid occupations. Furthermore, we’re underrepresented in positions of authority. Throughout the country, women are blocked from accessing basic health care.”
Family planning, she continues, is a case in point. Between 2011 — when Texas defunded every clinic that performed or referred women to abortion clinics — and 2016, when a court victory reopened these facilities, maternal mortality rates doubled and newborns died at increased rates. “If we’d had an ERA, these necessary health centers would not have been closed because shutting clinics that primarily serve women would have been seen as sex discrimination,” O’Neill concludes.
NOW’s ERA organizers are zeroing in on the four states they believe are most likely to pass the Amendment: Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia. Along with on-the-ground educational outreach, a new website geared toward millennials, VisionsforEquality.com, will roll out shortly.
“We believe that the ERA will help us assess what it means to be a real democracy,” O’Neill said. “Real equality has to ensure that all people have the right to vote and have a voice. An ERA will be an additional tool to strike down voter suppression laws and force states to make it easier for people to go to the polls. We need to brainstorm, and we need to listen to one another, so that today’s ERA campaign moves past the concerns of middle-class white women.”
Anticipating the Backlash
Pro-ERA forces understand that numerous obstacles to ERA passage continue to exist and know that conservative forces will ramp up their efforts if the ERA campaign gains momentum. In the 1970s, they remind us, the Mormon Church, Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA, and right-wing Christian groups including the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America joined forces with the Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry to put the kibosh on the amendment.
“The insurance industry has money and they gender rate everything,” O’Neill explains. “An ERA would derail this.” And, while the Affordable Care ostensibly makes setting rates based on gender and health status illegal, the law permits discrimination based on age. This gives the industry the wiggle room to charge men and women different fees for coverage — arguing that rates are determined by a person’s life stage, and not whether they are male or female, healthy or sick.
Predictably, gender-based insurance disparities did not faze Schlafly. Instead, she argued that the ERA promoted unnecessary meddling with business interests. In addition, she saw the Amendment as a violation of family values, and mobilized thousands of grassroots conservatives to oppose it.
“The ERA would actually take away some of women’s rights,” Schlafly told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, because it would “abolish the presumption that the husband should support his wife.” Not only that, she railed that it would allow men and women to be incarcerated in the same jails; allow the government to reinterpret alimony and child support laws; and end Social Security widow’s pensions — claims that she revved up to maximum effect. She also famously said that “women like the pay gap” (an average of 78 cents for every male dollar) because without it, they might earn more than their husbands, a sure-fire deterrent to successful matrimony.
Conservatives in Nevada repeated many of these bugaboos during the state’s recent debate on the issue, something feminists credit with turning the tide. “Their arguments were ridiculous or offensive or both,” the ERA Coalition’s Jessica Neuwirth said. “Their argument that a woman’s place is in the home was certainly not compelling.”
The Intersection of Race and Gender
While women’s role in society has gotten the lion’s share of ERA-related attention, the issue of race has gotten little play, with neither Schlafly nor the broader right wing explicitly bringing it to the fore. Nonetheless, according to Jessica Wilkerson, a professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, it was an ever-present subtext, at least in the South of 40-plus years ago. “Many white, Christian, southerners saw the ERA as a threat, one more assault on women’s traditional roles,” Wilkerson reports. “The same people who were part of a massive resistance to civil rights resisted the ERA, couching it in language about state’s rights and federal overreach. In Mississippi, the anti-ERA movement was largely white; the wife of a well-known Klan leader was actually an anti-ERA leader. Their political arguments were founded on the idea of white, male patriarchy. They believed that the ERA threatened white men’s status in society and would, by extension, lead white women to lose their privileges as wives and mothers. In Mississippi, the coalition against the ERA was called “Mississippians for God, Country and Family.”
Needless to say, should similar arguments resurface in present-day organizing, they will need to be addressed head-on by pro-ERA activists.
What’s more, today’s pro-ERA activists also need to be prepared to confront outright sexism and repression.
Junior Bridge was the Virginia state ERA campaign coordinator in the mid-1970s and says that she and other activists also had to contend with rampant male chauvinism. “The ERA had been bottlenecked in committee and the state group wanted to get it to the floor for a vote so we could at least see which legislators stood where,” she says. “We organized a 100-mile march, from Alexandria to the Richmond statehouse, in time for the opening day of the legislative session. It was January, nine degrees, and we were carrying 20,000 signed petitions,” she recalls. “When we arrived we were met by armed police — I had a gun pointed right at me — who told us that we could not enter the building.” Although the group eventually prevailed, the ERA failed to muster enough votes for passage.
It still stings, Bridge says, but more than four decades later, she is surprisingly upbeat; optimistic that the Amendment will finally become law. “Virginia voters have become much more willing to elect progressives,” she says. “The Mayor of Alexandria even cancelled public school on March 8th to honor the women’s strike. People understand that Trump and his Congress want to push us back and they know that having an ERA will make it harder to turn back the clock.”
Some feminists, however, question whether the ERA, as written, is enough. “The women’s movement has had a lot of success but it has mostly benefitted white women with some class privilege,” Jessica Wilkerson points out. “We have to look at the complexity of issues and ask what we mean by equality. In Appalachia, wages are close to gender parity but that’s because men’s wages have declined. It’s formal equality, but equality on a sinking ship many not be what we want.”
Nonetheless, Wilkerson acknowledges that the current bid to enact the ERA may be a necessary foundation on which to build. “Just remember that it’s not the south versus everyone else,” she said. “Even in the 1970s, the most heated debates about gender and equity happened in the south. This region is not only made up of conservatives. Progressive political organizing is happening. Momentum is building for social justice. Moral Mondays activists are leading the charge in this part of the country and they’re putting gender issues on an agenda that includes Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter.”
She considers this great progress. That said, she concedes that the loss of the ERA in the 1970s was heartbreaking for many feminists, but notes that January’s women’s marches in places like Oxford, Mississippi, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have kick-started a movement against sexism and other forms of bigotry. Whether this means that the legislatures of these states will pass the ERA, however, remains an open question.