In the 1970s, arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment were that a husband would no longer be able to support his wife, that it would cause rampant abortion, that women would have to fight in combat, that it would invade privacy, that it would cause same-sex marriage and that it would bring about unisex bathrooms.
Today, women make up half the workforce; the biggest threat to privacy is interference in women’s personal health care choices; same-sex marriage is the law; we have unisex bathrooms, and women are serving in combat, all without the ERA. Women may fight and die for our country, but they don’t have equal rights.
The only right guaranteed in the Constitution for women is the right to vote. Yet even that is being constantly eroded: This year alone, 92 bills were introduced in legislatures across the country to erode voting rights.
Lack of equal representation of women at tables of power continues to thwart efforts to pass the ERA. It’s hard to put it on the agenda from the backbench.
One major obstacle to passage is education. People think the ERA was passed sometime last century. It was not. It was approved by both houses of Congress in 1972 but needed then to be ratified by 38 states. It was ratified only by 35 states before it expired.
Folks ask: Don’t we already have equal rights under the law? No. What we have are piecemeal laws addressing inequality. Congress and state legislatures continue to pass baby steps instead of the ERA. Minnesota passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, a law that provides some badly needed protections in the workplace and that put the state at the forefront of workplace protections, but it did not go far enough.
There is a double standard in our judicial system. Courts apply a higher standard known as strict scrutiny to laws that affect a fundamental constitutional right such as racial and religious discrimination, but because discrimination on the basis of sex is not defined in the Constitution courts apply a lower standard known as intermediate scrutiny.
Now there is renewed effort in Congress to remove the expiration date on the ERA and reactivate the 35 states that passed it. Grass-roots organizations have a strategy to get ratification three more states and make equal rights the law. The states most likely to succeed in the near future are Illinois and Nevada, with other states in play.
Why the ERA? Because women make on average 77 cents to a man’s dollar, with even larger inequities for women of color; because twice as many women as men over the age of 65 live in poverty; because two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women; because only 3 percent of rapists will ever spend a night in jail; because we are still fighting the battle for voting rights for all; because one in five college women will experience sexual assault; because women still get fired for being pregnant; because child care can cost more than college; because some bosses deny workers birth-control coverage; because we’re one of only three industrialized countries that have no paid maternity leave; because women can fight and die for their country but don’t have equal rights, and because women are not willing to wait another 200 years for equality.
Like the campaign to achieve marriage equality in Minnesota, we need to have a dialogue with our families, friends, communities and colleagues about an injustice that exists in our Constitution. So we formed a delegation of 50-plus Minnesota women and a few good men to ride on a bus to Washington, D.C., to participate in the We Are Woman rally (#Rally4Equality2014) today on Capitol Hill and raise awareness of equal rights, voting rights and military women. We invite everyone on both sides of the political divide to follow up on our efforts.
Alice Paul, the suffragist who penned the first Equal Rights Amendment, wrote: “I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me, there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”
Yet ordinary equality requires extraordinary effort.
Betty Folliard is president of the Women Leadership Coalition, the lead organization of the Minnesota Delegation to #Rally4Equality2014, as well as board chair of the nonprofit law firm Gender Justice and a former state representative.