“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
I first read those words 40 years ago and believed the message was so simple that it would be added to the Constitution in a few months. How naïve I was.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was written by Alice Paul in 1921 and first introduced in Congress in 1923 by two Republicans, Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel Anthony Jr., Susan B. Anthony’s nephew. It took 49 years but it finally passed both houses in 1972. Ten years later, in 1982, the amendment was three states short of the 38 states needed for ratification.
Does it really matter if we have an ERA? Unquestionably. For women, full citizenship has not yet been achieved.
Since we attained the right to vote in 1920, issues affecting women have polarized the nation. Decade after decade we are faced with a see-saw battle over issues that define or affect women’s lives: health care, reproductive freedom, contraception, rape, domestic violence, equal pay, paid family leave, childcare, gender balance in office, gay marriage, and lesbian rights. The fight for women’s equality is ongoing.
In September 2010, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated, “the Constitution does not protect against sex discrimination.” For 40 years, case law has implied that the 14th Amendment prohibits discrimination based on sex, but it has not translated to the daily lives of women. With Scalia sitting on the Supreme Court, it is more imperative than ever that women obtain a constitutional guarantee of equal treatment; one written proactively to affirm women’s rights. According to Roberta W. Francis, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations’ ERA Task Force, an equal rights amendment would “provide a fundamental legal remedy against sex discrimination and … would clarify the legal status of sex discrimination for the courts.”
Women’s rights are political targets both in Congress and in state legislatures. These attacks seem to escalate during presidential campaigns. Following are a few examples, focused on women’s health and safety, that have occurred this past year:
_Congressman Tod Akin asserts that “legitimate rape” “rarely causes pregnancy.”
_Rush Limbaugh denigrates a young law student, Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress on the need for access to contraception;
_Komen for the Cure Foundation denies funding to Planned Parenthood’s free breast cancer screening;
_Republicans continue to oppose reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act, objecting to protection for immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ) people.
_Georgia and Louisiana pass bills that criminalize abortion after 20 weeks gestation, with no exception for rape or incest, joining six other states with similar restrictions.
American women remain far behind the rest of the world when it comes to equality. The U.S. Senate has refused to approve the treaty known as CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination on all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.) Adopted in 1979 by the United Nations, CEDAW is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women’s rights, politically, culturally, economically, and socially.
Throughout the world, this treaty is used to empower women and enforce their rights. The United States is one of four countries that have not passed the treaty. The others are Iran, Somalia, and Sudan, each known for its violations of international human rights principles.
Is the political climate any better now for the ERA than it was 40 years ago? Filmmaker Kamala Lopez has created a video to educate voters, and especially young people, who are unaware of the need for an ERA. Lopez’s video reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe women have a constitutional guarantee of equality despite the fact they do not. (Lopez will be the keynote speaker on September 22, when The Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County host their annual luncheon, from noon until 2 p.m. on September 22.)
On June 22, 2011, ERA ratification bills were submitted to Congress by lead sponsors Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Sen. Robert Menendez. Previously, in March 2011, Representative Tammy Baldwin submitted a resolution that would remove the ERA deadline and make it part of the Constitution when three more states ratify it. These proposals remain bottled up in committees.
Women continue to be second-class citizens. Since we represent only 17 percent of the members of Congress, we lack the critical mass to impact public policy. American women and men must pass a national ERA as a written guarantee to equal treatment under the law for women.
But how do we get there? For years women have been put on the defensive. Fighting both rhetoric and action, we are diverted to holding our ground, not moving forward. We must organize to pass the ERA. What we need is an American Spring: Use the internet, Facebook and Twitter like activists did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Women differ on many issues but we share the belief in equality, the basic tenet of our democracy. Let’s go to the squares, town halls, and legislatures. Let’s make the ERA an issue for the 2012 presidential election.
Susan Rose is a founding member of the Santa Barbara Women's Political Committee. She served two terms on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, and currently serves on the advisory boards of numerous nonprofit agencies.