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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org 651-230-3294