Whatever happened to the Equal Rights Amendment?
Despite its vital importance to women seeking equal protection under the law, nobody talks about the ERA anymore. The intense commitment and energy dedicated to securing its passage by Congress in 1972 dissipated quickly after ratification failed in 1982 by only three states.
So close, yet so far.
Originally introduced in 1923, the ERA was meant to be companion legislation to the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. Both of these constitutional amendments were, and still are, considered necessary to achieve basic human rights for women in this country. The ERA 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.”
People sometimes ask, “Why do we need the ERA when women’s rights are already protected by the 14th Amendment?” The answer, backed by decades of legal opinion and rulings, is that women’s rights are not protected by the 14th Amendment since it was never intended to cover sex discrimination. Beyond the right to vote, women are mentioned nowhere else in the constitution. Some legal commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that the constitution does not address, let alone promise, equality between the sexes. Therefore, the ERA is essential to guaranteeing that women are afforded the same protections promised by the U.S. Constitution to all of its citizens.
The lack of an ERA has implications beyond our shores and is an embarrassing absence that affects our position in the world. After World War II, the United States demanded that each new nation that was formed must include women in its constitution. Yet, we still have not done so. Compounding this hypocrisy, our country refuses to ratify the United Nation’s Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women. We are one of only seven nations in this hall of shame, the others being countries such as Iran, Somalia and Sudan. Today, it is disingenuous to call ourselves the world’s leader in human rights while 52 percent of our population are second class citizens.
Fortunately, times have changed since ratification failed in 1982. In a 2001 Opinion Research poll, 96 percent of Americans believed women should be equal to men; and 72 percent incorrectly thought that the ERA had already passed. Changes have also occurred in our culture: The number of women in the workplace has increased from 44 percent in 1972 to 57 percent in 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics); if part-time workers were included, the percentage of working women would be even higher. Increasingly, women are the primary or sole source of income for their families.
Nonetheless, crucial issues remain unresolved, unequal pay for comparable work is still a problem for women, as are sexual harassment and discrimination on the job, pregnancy discrimination, insufficient protections against violence, and a host of other issues that reflect systemic social and economic barriers for women.
To be fair, Congress has passed legislation to address some of these issues, but in the implementation phase, almost none are working as envisioned due to the narrow interpretation of existing laws by federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The ERA is essential because it would change the standard by which sex discrimination is judged.
Congress is now taking another look at the ERA; and national and state advocacy organizations are gearing up to focus the spotlight on what will undoubtedly be another contentious process.
In Delaware, ERANow: Delaware’s Coalition for Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a nonpartisan group of women and men, is beginning the task of building awareness among Delawareans about the amendment. We realize that almost all current state and federal elected officials were not holding office when Delaware was the second state to ratify the ERA in 1972, so they will need education on this issue as well.
ERANow invites individuals and groups in Delaware to join us and commit to persuading our elected state and federal legislators to do the right thing for Delaware women, mothers, wives and daughters. If anyone is reluctant to join the effort, ask a simple question: In this day and age, why are we still debating legislation that will grant half our population the same protections under the law that the other half has enjoyed for over 200 years?
The time for the ERA is now.
Suzanne C. Moore is a member of Delaware ERANow.