First lady Betty Ford

Last week was an eventful week for human rights in the United States. On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a class-action suit brought by women employees of Wal-Mart who contended that the company discriminated against them. On June 24, New York’s State Legislature passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage. Both developments got big headlines on the front pages of newspapers and the home pages of news websites. But another event passed with very little notice from news organizations: on June 22 a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women was introduced in the House and the Senate. Make that re-introduced. A version of the amendment — sometimes with slightly different wording — has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1923. Although Congress passed the amendment in 1972, it fell three states short when the extended deadline for ratification passed in 1982.

So here we are almost 40 years after Congress thought it would be a good idea to guarantee equal rights for women and 88 years after the suffragist Alice Paul wrote the first version of an equal rights amendment, and not only are we without a Constitution that guarantees men and women will be treated equally under the law but we also we seem to be unable to muster much interest in the subject. Think back to the 1970s and early 1980s when the ratification campaign was in full swing. Passions ran high on both sides, with feminist groups, like the National Organization for Women, pushing for the amendment and Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum leading the opposition.

As a young reporter at the Edwardsville Intelligencer, I covered the ratification effort in Illinois. The battle over the amendment was literally played out in a wealthy neighborhood of nearby Alton, Ill., where Phyllis Schlafly ran her campaign against the amendment from her home while her next-door neighbor, Gladys Levis, lobbied long and hard for the amendment. It wasn’t a question of party politics; both women were Republicans. Vigils were held at the State Capitol in Springfield; marches were held in Chicago. Yet Illinois remains to this day one of the 15 states that has not ratified the ERA, even though efforts continue despite the deadline.

The arguments made against the Equal Rights Amendment seem almost quaint now. Women would be subject to the military draft, it was said. (The draft was ended in 1973, although men between the ages of 18 and 25 are still required to register.) Women in the military would be subject to going into combat. (Today some women want to go into combat because military career options can be limited without combat experience. And many women serving in “noncombat” positions have been killed or disabled in war zones, like Iraq and Afghanistan.) There would be unisex bathrooms. (There are unisex bathrooms in trendy bars and even in Ivy League universities. Many stores have unisex bathrooms for disabled people or families with small children.) Same-sex marriage would become legal and undermine the family. (Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia.)

Another point that ERA opponents voiced was that women’s rights were protected under various laws and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave voting rights to blacks and provides for equal protection under the laws for all citizens. But ERA supporters say the 19th Amendment wouldn’t have been needed to give women the vote if that were true. And just last year Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said he believed that the Constitution did not bar sex discrimination. “If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex,” Scalia said in a speech, “you have legislatures.”

Fortunately, American women have not waited for the ERA to pursue their passions and ambitions. Women outnumber men in college enrollment. More and more women are doctors, lawyers and political office holders. Three women have been secretary of state, four women have been Supreme Court justices, and women have legitimate aspirations for the presidency. Yet women earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing similar work, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. That is certainly an improvement from the 59 1/2 cents of the 1970s, but it is not nearly enough.

We seem to be more comfortable pushing for women’s rights around the world, in places like Afghanistan and Iran. A recent campaign in the United States encourages us to honk if we support women in Saudi Arabia who are challenging laws that bar them from driving automobiles. How many of us would honk for the Equal Rights Amendment?

One thing we can learn from the same-sex marriage debate in New York (no matter where you stand on that issue) is that if people don’t speak up, nothing changes. For most of us, the Equal Rights Amendment won’t change our circumstances appreciably. But it would be nice to know that our daughters and our younger sisters had a constitutional right to crash through the glass ceiling.

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  • b. elliott June 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Great job, Carla! You tell me when and where to honk. And I’ll lean on the horn.

  • Craig Wolff June 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Bravo Carla… By combining a strong voice with a wealth of solid research, you thoughtfully and movingly underscored the fight women still have on their hands. It’s a shocker, really. And I say that as the father of a bright 10-year-old girl who has read books on the suffrage movement and is already asking questions. I’m going to make sure she sees this piece as well as my teen-aged son. And I will alert friends.
    I like to think it can ignite a conversation and put this issue back where it belongs — on the front burner.
    Again, I cannot commend the author enough. It is a model of advocacy journalism at its best.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen June 28, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Women have become complacent and have been acting as if equal rights for women were already in place. Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s comment that if women want assurance of equal rights then this legislation which has been proposed for over 40 years needs to be passed and sent to the states again. Women must make this a requirement for the men and women who are running for office if they want to be re-elected.

    Great wake up call, Carla.

    Pat Allen