Dressed in red and carrying signs championing women's rights, a few hundred women — and more than a few men — turned out at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday to urge state lawmakers to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state Constitution.
For many, it's a fight they've tried to keep up for decades. Congress back in 1972 approved the federal constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equal rights and sent it to the states for ratification, but it sank without enough states' support. For years, activists have championed bills to add an Equal Rights Amendment to Minnesota's Constitution, but gotten nowhere.
This year, ERA bills introduced by DFL lawmakers into a Republican-controlled Legislature face a similar fate. But bolstered by the swell of activism that has followed the election of President Donald Trump, including massive turnout at the Women's March in January, supporters say they are feeling a surge of energy.
"If our bills are heard, they will prevail because women's rights are human rights," said Betty Folliard, a former state lawmaker who has led the charge for the ERA in Minnesota for several years. "We aren't going away, and we need [legislative leaders] to stand beside us, or get out of the way."
The gathering of ERA supporters and organizers of the Women's March Minnesota coincided with International Women's Day. It was also the date for the Women's March-led effort to get women to stay home from work, avoid spending money and wear red as a show of numbers and economic power.
Among the chief concerns of amendment supporters are pay disparities between women and men in the workplace. Other issues raised by advocates at a news conference on Wednesday included domestic violence and sexual assault, pregnancy and other women's health issues and women's incarceration. They said legal threats to women's rights will always be a problem unless specific protection is granted in the Constitution.
The bills introduced in the Legislature have two goals: getting the state to add an amendment protecting women's rights to the state Constitution and urging extension of the deadline for getting enough states on board with the federal amendment. When Congress originally passed the amendment, states had 10 years to approve it, with 38 needed to make it official. Supporters see hope in recent actions by lawmakers in Nevada, where Democrats took control of the Legislature in November and appear ready to ratify the amendment.
Minnesota ratified the federal amendment in 1973, but never included similar language in its own Constitution.
Critics of the ERA have voiced concerns about how the amendment could make women subject to a military draft and disrupt traditional gender roles. Some have wondered if the amendment is necessary alongside other laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender.
But supporters like Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, author of one of the Minnesota bills, said those laws don't fix problems that persist, decades after the ERA was introduced.
"As long as women are not specifically recognized in the Constitution, women — and even more so women of color — will continue to encounter double standards in the law regarding pay inequities, lack of justice regarding domestic and sexual violence, and child care," she said. "So we need the ERA."
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790