Remember the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (presented to the states in 1972, declared dead in 1982)? If you’re like most Americans, you don’t remember it very well. In a survey by the Opinion Research Corporation, 72 percent of respondents said they believed the Constitution already gives men and women equal rights. It doesn’t. Many on the religious right would pretend surprise if told that the ERA didn’t promote homosexual acts. Critics still predict an epidemic of unisex toilets, women in combat, abortion, and samesex marriage if the ERA were adopted.
Today, as columnist Ellen Goodman recently observed, we already have all these things, and the ERA is not responsible. That’s because it was never adopted. But it still can be.
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” That’s what the ERA says, and that’s all it says. That’s what the ERA has said in its entirety since its introduction in 1943. It seems hard to argue with, especially since the Constitution already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. Sex discrimination is unique in not being constitutionally prohibited.
We can still adopt an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Doing so would put America on record, alongside all entities since World War II that have proclaimed that men and women enjoy equal rights.
But wait—didn’t the ERA die when its 1982 deadline passed without winning ratification by the required thirtyeight states? No! Traditionally, constitutional amendments expired if they failed to attract their required state ratification in a sevenyear period (the ERA won one three-year extension from Congress), but the grounds for this policy are ambiguous. In 1992, the Twenty-seventh Amendment was adopted, forbidding congressional pay raises from taking effect until the next election cycle. This amendment had been presented to the states in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights — and was adopted when it received its last required ratification, 203 years later. Surely after that precedent, the ERA, which won thirtyfive of thirtyeight required ratifications between 1972 and 1982, is not dead. What’s more, according to research done by the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), states cannot rescind a vote to ratify a constitutional amendment; our existing thirtyfive ratifications are secure. Only three more state ratifications may be needed to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. A campaign in twenty-two states to obtain those ratifications is now underway.
Some argue that America doesn’t need to add to the Constitution because we already have laws like the Pay Equity Act. That might be true if only they worked—women still earn about seventytwo cents for every dollar of men’s wages for the same or comparable work. Women’s shrunken wages translate into shrunken or nonexistent pensions and Social Security payments: nearly one in seven women seventy-five years and older lives in poverty.
Meanwhile, men should also support the ERA (and many do). For one thing, it would reduce or end the unfavorable treatment many fathers feel that they receive in childcustody disputes. For another, gender pay equity would be an economic windfall for working families, which on average lose $4,205 per year because of working wives’ unequal salaries.
In any case, laws can be ignored, overturned, distorted, or made worse by a single legislative vote. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seems to claim equality for all persons, but partisans argue over who is a “person.” The language of the ERA is unmistakably clear. In 2001, the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals weakened language in the Florida state constitution that guaranteed equal “basic rights for females and males alike.” It ruled that, since the U.S. Constitution did not
forbid sex discrimination, federal courts may not apply “strict scrutiny” to state discrimination cases. Women lost again. Obviously, we need the ERA.
It’s always the right time to do the right thing. Equality is America’s ballast, and the push is on. Fifteen states are still unratified but only three more may be required for adoption into the U.S. Constitution. There are now thirty-six ERA Campaign network coordinators in twenty-two states. I hold that title for
Fifteen States Have Not Yet Ratified the ERA
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi
Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia
Florida, where our Equal Rights Alliance includes 105 major organizations, more than 270,000 committed supporters, and endorsements by all Florida county commissioners. Our state ERA campaign enjoyed coverage by all four broadcast news networks in eighty national television markets just this January. And that’s just the beginning.
Illinois, Florida, and Missouri are now considering ratification bills, and there are others. Of course, it’s long overdue for southeastern states and a few renegade western states to step into the new millennium and help complete the U.S. Constitution.
A broad spectrum of advocates—men and women, Democrats and Republicans, representatives of every ethnicity—have decided that this is the time for the ERA to pass. If you’d like to learn more, receive the free electronic Campaigner, or learn how you can help, visit www.RatifyERAflorida.net, www.equalrightsamendment.org, or www.ERACampaign.net. No matter where you live, we need your support to complete the promise of the ERA.
Sandy Jo Oestreich is founder and president of Equal Rights Alliance (Florida). She is professor emerita at Adelphi University in New York, a former elected official, a nurse practitioner, and coauthor of pharmacology reference text.