The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is really very simple:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
It suggests the basic principle of equal humanity. And, it is shocking that ERA remains only a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Equality between the sexes is not part of the Constitution.
The Constitution is the very document that organizes American civic life. What does it mean that the United States has failed—and continues to fail—to include sex equality among the values it holds so dear?
There was a moment in history when it seemed the nation would finally achieve its democracy. The ERA passed in Congress on March 22, 1972. It seemed like a glorious victory, women and men all over the country had been organizing and marching for it since Alice Paul drafted an early version of it in 1923. Back then, ERA was called the Lucretia Mott Amendment, and the hope was that with the newly won right to vote in 1920, women might win their rights as equal human beings.
ERA bans all discrimination based on sex. By 1972, mothers, daughters, sons, husbands, brothers and Congress recognized the time had come for sex equality—with the help of women scientists and engineers, the U.S. had just sent a man to the moon. Certainly, it could recognize that women deserved the same constitutional rights as men.
Within a year of its 1972 passage, 30 states had ratified ERA, with 9 additional states by 1979, which was also the year the United States introduced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. And while this momentum is a stunning example of coalitional activism, ERA failed ratification.
Since then, advocates for ERA have petitioned Congress every year for nearly 50 years. Most recently, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) once again introduced ERA to both houses of Congress. That last effort was in May 2015. It failed.
The language of ERA hasn’t changed since 1972: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The idea that women and men should have the same constitutional rights is a no brainer. Even the arguments against ERA are old and tired. So why hasn’t ERA passed? ERA hasn’t passed because sexism is real.
Watch: Got Rights (2013)
The trend to ban books by feminists like Isabel Allende, Gloria Anzaldua, Sandra Cisneros, and bell hooks in Arizona, to authorizing school books in Texas to teach children that one “pattern of immigration” to the United States was “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s [that] brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations,” suggests a deliberate turn to mis-educate American children who will one day grow up and vote.
It is no surprise that Arizona and Texas have some of the most restrictive laws concerning a woman’s right to choose. And while women still have the right to make decisions about their own bodies (the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling took place in 1973—on the heels of ERA), the 443 men in charge of Congress (there are 93 women in Congress, 17 are Senators) and the overwhelming majority of men in state legislatures across the country are ready to take those rights away.
This is why the ERA is still important. The constitution does not value the rights of women the same as it values the rights of men.
And, like those banned books in Arizona, there is a lack of information about sex equality in the United States that makes it so that some people think we have already achieved it.
EqualityArchive is our little effort to provide information, just in case textbooks forget to mention that women and men are not equal in constitutional law. Information is powerful; it informs our thinking, and our thinking inspires our actions.
Watch: Ani DiFranco “Amendment” (2010)
There are so many intersecting layers to the long history of ERA. Some of them are assembled here—WSQ’s The 1970s revisits ERA with a nuance worth exploring. There are opportunities to learn and to get involved through EqualityArchive that demonstrate the ways in which we still have work to do.
Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (1986)
Jessica Nuewirth and Gloria Steinem, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment is Now (2015)