by Idella Moore
When Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, in order to get around powerful North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin's opposition, it added a seven-year time limit on ratification. Even after Congress bowed to public pressure to extend the deadline, proponents were given only an additional three years to finish ratification.
Throughout the 10 years of the ERA campaign, national polls consistently showed the majority of Americans were in favor of the amendment. But state legislators who believed (or purported to believe) the anti-ERA claims that the ERA would destroy families, legalize gay marriage, subject women to the military draft, and mandate unisex toilets, were successful in preventing the ERA from being ratified in 15 state legislatures. By June 30, 1982 the deadline came with the ERA lacking just three of the 38 states needed for ratification. The ERA was defeated. Or was it?
Twenty-four years after the Equal Rights Amendment's ratification "deadline," there is a new campaign to finish ratifying the ERA, and the campaign is beginning to gain some momentum. Although members of Congress have re-introduced ERA ratification resolutions into every session of Congress since 1982, only recently have grassroots proponents developed a new strategy. This "three state" strategy is based upon a legal opinion that says the ERA ratification process is still legally active and can continue from where it left off.
The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress has presented findings which support such a strategy. According to this opinion, if three more states ratify the ERA Congress has the power to declare it fully ratified and add it to the Constitution. North Carolina is one of the 15 states that didn't ratify the amendment.
This new ERA campaign has had some success. For instance, Illinois' House passed the ERA in May 2003, and Missouri and Florida have introduced ratification resolutions in the last several legislative sessions. In 2005, the Arkansas Senate voted on an ERA ratification resolution. That resolution failed by a margin of only two votes. On January 24, 2007, it was re-introduced during an ERA rally attended by Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe and all of the state's constitutional officers. The committee hearing drew revered former Governor and U.S. Senator David Pryor to speak in favor of the ERA. The committee vote resulted in a tie so the resolution is expected to have a second hearing sometime during the next few weeks. A week after the Arkansas resolution was introduced, ERA advocates in Arizona also introduced a ratification resolution. Currently there are ERA resolutions pending in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Missouri.
But would ratification of the ERA really mean that we would have to share toilet facilities with members of the opposite sex? In 20 states, equal rights amendments (or near equivalents) have been added to state constitutions, yet unisex rest rooms have yet to be mandated. In fact all of the anti-ERA claims are equally without merit.
But why is the ERA still needed? For all the same reasons it was needed before. Although women have made some gains since the 1970s, sex discrimination in the workplace continues to impact women and consequently their families. For instance, the largest class action lawsuit in the history of the U.S. is currently being argued involving 1.6 million women who are suing a major box store for sex discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. These types of cases would be rare if the ERA was ratified.
Furthermore, full time working women continue to make on average 75 cents for every $1 a full time working man makes. Forty-two years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed employment discrimination it is evident that laws are not sufficient for protecting women from unequal treatment. The ERA is necessary to provide the legal muscle to attack sex discrimination vigorously and consistently.
Americans still overwhelmingly support equality of men and women. Eighty-eight percent of the public believe that the ERA should be in the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, our U.S. diplomats insisted that equal rights for men and women were included in the new constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq. An explicit statement to our Constitution that men and women in this country are citizens of equal worth and are entitled to equal treatment under the law is long overdue.
Moore is the executive officer for 4ERA.org.