Do Minnesota women have equal rights?

It’s been decades since the Equal Rights Amendment almost became law. Now, there’s a new push to pass the ERA.

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Are women equal? The question seems ludicrous. Of course we are equal. Except, we aren’t. Women don’t have equal rights under the law. Not in our state. Not in our country. We still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment, a clear and simple statement, first introduced in Congress in 1923, then re-introduced in 1971.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

By 1972, the ERA, that simple statement of equality, had passed both the House and Senate. Once 38 states ratified the amendment, it would become the law of the land. So why isn’t ERA the law? Thirty-five states ratified it, three states short. What went wrong?

An anti-feminist named Phyllis Schlafly churned up fears about the ERA’s supposed dangers. She insisted that the amendment giving women equality would diminish housewives, force women to be drafted, wreck employment law, and lead to co-ed bathrooms.

A clear-eyed lawyer dismantled what she called the four “horribles,” the four fears that Schlafly and others opponents spewed. That lawyer, Columbia University’s first tenured woman law professor, was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her 1973 article for the American Bar Association Journal, “The Need for the Equal Rights Amendment” points out that horrible fears Schlafly spread in the 70s had already been answered in the 1920s, when Congress first introduced the ERA.

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RBG, in the Sept 1973 American Bar Association Journal

It’s been 25 since Ginsburg presented her cogent arguments for the ERA. As a fearless Supreme Court justice, RBG has risen as a role model and champion for countless women and men. So, if women like Ginsburg can achieve the Supreme Court, aren’t we already equal? Consider the words of one of Ginsburg’s colleagues, now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Asked why he voted against Lily Ledbetter’s petition for fair pay, Scalia said, “The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex, thus I was under no constitutional obligation to do so.”

Scalia said it plainly enough. “The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex.” The Constitution and amendments specifically mention male citizens, race, religion and country of origin, for example. So all those specifically named groups and characteristics get strict scrutiny in courts;. Gender discrimination doesn’t get the same level of legal protection. We need the ERA.

Now, almost fifty years since the 1970’s oh-so-close ERA drive, there’s a renewed push to pass the amendment. Here in Minnesota, Heather Allison leads ERA-MN, which is lobbying to get the Equal Rights Amendment on our state ballot as well as continuing to push for final ratification nationally. She’ll be at East Side Freedom Library on Monday, April 16, for Equal Means Equal, a documentary on the status of women in America, and conversation about what’s happening with Minnesota’s ERA campaign. Minnesota ratified the ERA in 1973. Allison and others hope Minnesotans will vote yes for the ERA again. This time, Minnesota’s ERA has updated language:

Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.”

Fourteen simple words that say so much, making equality for all the law. Fourteen words that would make it easy to answer a basic question, Are women equal?

Let’s give Ruth Bader Ginsburg the final word:

The equal rights amendment, in sum, would dedicate the nation to a new view of the rights and responsibilities of men and women. It firmly rejects sharp legislative lines between the sexes as constitutionally tolerable. Instead, it looks toward a legal system in which each person will be judged on the basis of individual merit and not on the basis of an unalterable trait of birth that bears no necessary relationship to need or ability.”

MONDAY, April 16, 7:00 PM  Equal Means Equal: Do MN women have equal rights? View Equal Means Equal, a documentary about women’s status in America, and hear Heather Allison, president of ERA-MN, about efforts to get the Equal Rights Amendment to Minnesota’s Constitution and nationally at East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul, 55106. Free and open to all. info@eastsidefreedomlibrary.org 651-230-3294   

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Stories rise up at East Side Freedom Library

Anchored firmly on the corner of Greenbrier and Jessamine Streets, this brick and mortar Beaux Arts building looks traditional, even staid.

Step inside, and you’ll see and hear a vigorous world of faces and stories, more lefty than stuffy. I hear the urgency of ardent voices– union organizers, community activists, and immigrant neighbors– demanding their stories be heard.

Funded by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, this library, built in 1917, a year of revolution, reverberates with robust stories.

A blue sign proclaims, “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers.” Posters hang like fresh laundry, an open-air display of the issues of the day: “PHILANDO MATTERS,” “CLERGY STANDING WITH STANDING ROCK,” “RESISTANCE IS IMPERATIVE,” “WE STAND TOGETHER.”

IMG_20170809_155245The walls and stairwell shine with vivid murals of Minnesotans: Immigrants from Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America, along with African Americans, building a community here on the East Side.

The library’s collection of books, art, music and other items highlight peoples whose stories and songs have often been ignored by traditional history books and libraries.

An East Sider couple, labor historian Peter Rachleff and theater and dance professor Beth Cleary, transformed the old Arlington Hills Branch Library into this theater of stories. When Saint Paul opened the new Arlington Hills branch nearby in 2014, Rachleff and Cleary’s nonprofit signed a 15-year lease for this space and launched the East Side Freedom Library. The lease is $1 a year, but it costs $1,200 a month just to maintain lights and heat.

The old building bristles with the energy and heat of activism. This library is more non-conformist than conventional. None of the 18,000 books filling the tall wood shelves can be checked out. Instead, the public are invited to use the books and other research materials here. This is a community space, with movies and weaving, meditation and meetings, including a union job fair.

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A crowded Lemonade and Listening session with elected officials at East Side Freedom Library

One recent rainy afternoon, the library was standing room only. More than 150 people wedged in for a Lemonade and Listening session with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and local legislators. Stories rang out.

An Iraq War veteran asked McCollum why the VA won’t provide health care for trans people. People talked about climate change, water quality, net neutrality and the healthcare marketplace. McCollum told people they had collective power about health care and other issues. “You have a voice,” she reminded the audience. “That is powerful. The fact that you showed up, spoke out, wrote out…”

An angry man interrupted the congresswoman, outshouting all other voices—disrupting the session until eventually, collective voices won out, and the listening session resumed, with talk about pipelines, broadband, Islamophobia and the need for unity.

Rep. Tim Mahoney joked, “Mr. Carnegie is rolling in his grave…”  about the pro-union, left-wing views of this Freedom space. Managers at the Carnegie Steel Corporation triggered the bloody 1892 Homestead strike. Carnegie emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland at age 13 with his family and became one of the 19th century’s richest businessmen then spent years giving away most of his wealth, launching more than 2,000 libraries, along with what’s now Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

IMG_20170809_154716So perhaps it’s fitting that the immigrant tycoon’s traditional library is home to stories of other immigrants. The Freedom Library’s collections include the African diaspora and Hmong Archives. The library organizes monthly Neighbors meet Neighbors sessions. This month, Somalis shared their stories, history and culture. In September, Karen immigrants take the stage.

On summer Tuesdays, I’ve had the joy of sitting in this library of stories, finding my own words, then sharing lunch and conversation with fellow women writers. We’ve sat on the steps outside, talking about our work, families, places we’ve been and want to visit. Next week, we’ll read from our summer’s work.

One afternoon, a construction worker repairing alley potholes stopped by. His crewmates took their lunch break in the truck parked in the library’s tranquil shade. He made himself at home by us, each woman with our organic veggies and fruit packed in re-usable containers. He started talking, telling his opinions about city projects and politics. We hadn’t invited him, he just came. Needing to talk, a blue-collar worker saying what was on his mind, on the steps of a community library that embraces so many stories.

This brawny building is packed with stories of people, their voices rising up.

 

Ordinary history: Old glass, worn shoes

After wandering through galleries of spectacular history at the British Museum, I stop and stand in awe, transfixed by a broken window pane. The grayish-blue glass is scratched and missing four fragments, yet it’s intact, still clearly a window pane. This thin square of glass was found in Sussex, England, and dates to Roman times, the 1st or 2nd century BC. A bath house window that somehow managed to survive millennia. How can that be?

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Window pane, 1st-2nd century BC

As I write this, sitting at my desk in Minnesota, I glance out the century-old windows of my house, seeing golden leaves swaying in the autumn sun. Might any of these windows endure for another 2,000 years? I look down at the travel photos on my modern phone, a shiny glass screen that shows me a fractured pane from the 1st century BC.  A window from the past giving 21st century people a window to the past.

The image of that old grayish-blue pane stays with me, more than the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, the heralded stars of the astonishing British Museum. Yes, I saw the Marbles and the Stone, and yes, I was impressed. The Rosetta Stone stands as a testament to the power of language. The massive stone, dense with inscriptions written in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek—gave modern scholars a key to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone helped people today learn what people long ago had written. We can see their stories, even if we cannot hear the original voices.

The museum presents the history of the world, artifacts amassed by a once powerful empire. The collections describe gods and royals, as well as ordinary people. For me, it’s the mundane objects that reveal glimpses of people who lived long ago.

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Iron scissors, 16th century

I see iron scissors from the 16th century and wonder who held them, and what was cut. Textiles, paper, hair? Did some young man trim his red beard with those scissors, as my son trims his beard? Did a weary woman sit by the fire, sewing, with those scissors by her side, just as I, occasionally sit and mend? I see wooden combs and metal tweezers, toiletry items akin to those in modern purses and homes. The bronze and silver Etruscan handheld mirrors would fit in on a 21st century vanity. I see myself reflected in a mirror, first polished in the 4th century. I conjure the woman who owned this mirror, seeing her face.

img_20161013_121630What did she think when she looked at herself? Did she reach for her metal tweezer, her wooden comb? Did she hold this mirror as she applied kohl, black makeup that helped shield her eyes from strong sunlight, much as my sunglasses do? I stare at her mirror and want to know her story.

I walk into another gallery and stare at old shoes, Roman boots from 25 BC, found in ancient Egypt. The examples of footwear range from a foot-shaped lump resembling burnt leather, cracked at the mid-foot; a taupe swath of what seems like a moccasin; and a sorry sole with several holes and a few leather straps, a shadow of a shoe. The sign explains that these military boots were probably caligae, meaning little soldiers, worn by soldiers under the Emperor Gaius.

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Roman marching boots,  25 BC

I know the soldiers’ shoes are just a footnote of history, not the main meat. But the boots bear traces of the soldiers who wore them, average people whose collective footprints shaped history. Their everyday stories, more than the epic battles and ornate coronations, are the history I long to know.

The soldiers who strapped on those boots, the people who used the scissors and toiletries were, in some ways, like us today. They spoke other languages, lived on other continents, yet their lives mirrored in some ways, our lives. They looked in the mirror, combed, cut, or tweezed their hair, laced up their shoes, went to where the powerful people told them to, and maybe, looked out a window, daydreaming. Seeing historical artifacts reminds me that, no matter the differences of time, language, and geography, we are all people, more alike than not, one species sharing one planet.

Art, death, memory

Lots of art, lots of death. That’s how I’ll remember twelve days touring castles and museums, churches, parks and squares in Copenhagen, London, and Newcastle.

So much of the history and art seemed imbued with fear and desire. The fear of death, the desire to be remembered. We don’t want to die and don’t want to be forgotten.

I saw so many faces and names carved in stone, bone, and marble, painted on canvas, glazed on tile. Many of the faces looked distinctive, rather than generic. The king with the spectacular curly beard, the queen with eyes bulging, the guy with a wart above his lip.  Those warts-and-all busts make me think those subjects wanted to be remembered as they were.

Sometimes the art tells us about the subject; sometimes it reveals more about the artist. Museums full of handcrafts connect the maker from centuries ago with those of us who see the craft today. We who gaze at the statues, the silver skull watch jewelry, the beautiful gravestones, we see the work, and can envision something of the maker and the made.

Art offers immortality, a way for people to live forever, or at least a hedge against being forgotten. The fear of fading away is as common now as it was in the days of Egyptian kings and their elaborate tombs. Instead of pyramids, we emblazon schools and hospitals, all kinds of buildings, with names, sometimes in massive gold letters. Many of us pay to have our loved ones’ names chiseled on gravestones, stone memories that remain long after bodies become dust.

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Aurelius Julianus family gravestone

I think of a gravestone of a young child, the son of a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The stone recounts the sadness of Aurelius Julianus, whose wife died in childbirth and a year later, whose infant son died. The soldier’s grief was compounded when he was ordered to a new post, abandoning his family’s tombstones. “May the gods forgive me. There’s no one left to perform the rituals for my dead family.”

Aurelius Julianus feared no one would remember or honor his wife and son. More than two thousand years after their deaths, their memory remains, thanks to a humble tombstone now in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England. Aurelius Julianus’s love and grief have kept his family from being forgotten.

A simple gravestone or ornate tomb, a name carved in marble or gold, busts and statues, all reveal stories we tell about ourselves or others. The art portrays something of who we are, as well as our fear of death, our need to be remembered.