By Sasha Robinson, ERC Intern
As we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—one of this century’s most important legislative measures for gender equality—it is baffling that we are still three states shy from national ratification into the Constitution.
Since its introduction in 1923, the ERA has been presented to every Congress in hopes of ratification. The amendment was written with the intent to eliminate discrimination based on sex. Section 1 of the ERA states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The protections afforded under the ERA include: sex equality written in law as a basic principle, allowing the courts to advocate for full equality with no obstruction, and giving women the rights they are entitled as equal citizens of this country. Currently, some state constitutions do have legal protection against sex discrimination, but only the federal ERA can provide complete protection for both men and women.
Thirty years ago, Gloria Steinem and other feminists rallied for the ratification of the ERA; this was as an opportunity to rid the country of gender discrimination and prejudice through a constitutional amendment. In 1972, after gaining a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, ERA supporters headed out to campaign across the country to educate men and women to the benefits of ratifying the ERA. However, three states away from the necessary three-fourths majority ratification, momentum stalled with huge push back from the anti-ERA movement led by lawyer Phyllis Schlafly. Using the argument that the ratification of the ERA would destroy the traditional American family, Schlafly convinced the final deciding states to vote against the ERA. Schlafly accused ERA supporters of attempting to legalize abortion, homosexual activities, and breaking up the nuclear family. Although these accusations were false, the damage was done. This anti-ERA activity pitted feminists against traditionalists, culminating in an unsuccessful fight for gender equality for women thwarted by women.
Historically, women have faced undue discrimination relative to men in political, economic and social spheres. Over the last century, women have slowly gained credibility, rights and status. There have been many legislative measures advocating for women, including: female suffrage (1920), reproductive health care (Roe v. Wade), equal pay (The Equal Pay Act of 1963), safety (Marital Rape Act of 1976), and equal educational and professional opportunities (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of 1972). Despite these legal protections, women still receive between 71-88 cents on the dollar for equal work to men, and women constitute only a minority of positions of power despite claims of equal opportunity. Although we have made huge leads toward gender equality over the last century, there is still a long way to go.
Regardless of the law, many people and organizations choose to act in their best interest or according to their personal beliefs, which often results in sex discrimination. If sex equality is explicitly written in the Constitution, courts will be better able to better protect these rights and actively pursue justice. Amending the Constitution to include the ERA will verify “equal justice under law” for everyone, regardless of sex, building on the existing protection of women’s rights and bringing us one step closer to gender parity.
While ratification of the amendment remains unachieved, momentum is building. Since the deadline passed in 1982 for the three states’ ratification, many are pushing for an ex post facto ruling, which allows three more states to ratify the ERA to permanently amend the U.S. Constitution. Wisely put by women’s suffragist Alice Paul, “We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”