The Long and Winding Road to Equal Rights
So far, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. But there have been several proposals to amend the constitution that have been lost. Whether it’s the “Titles of Nobility Amendment” which would have made it illegal for an American to accept a title of nobility from a foreign power, or the “Balanced Budget Amendment” which would require a balanced budget every year, or the “Federal Marriage Amendment” which would’ve banned gay marriage throughout the U.S. Some of these proposed amendments are bygones of a long ago era, and others are simply abandoned projects from still-existing special interests. However, one amendment which came oh so close to ratification that is still being discussed is the Equal Rights Amendment.
The amendment which was first written in 1923 by women’s rights activists Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, would enshrine in the U.S. Constitution equality before the law regardless of sex. This amendment would’ve secured all rights women had not been ensured in the 19th Amendment, which only granted women the right to vote.
At first, this amendment seemed to be a no-brainer, even by 1970’s standards. For once, slow-moving federal politicians weren’t the main problem, and it was passed by the U.S. Congress with a 7-year deadline to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Many state legislatures quickly did so, and it appeared the ERA would coast to ratification. Enter Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly fought for what she called the right of women to be “in the home as a wife and mother.” Interestingly enough, as Schlafly was traveling all over the country saying this, she had 6 children at home, but let’s not talk about that. Hypocrisy notwithstanding, Schlafly was ultimately successful, as the ERA failed to be passed by its initial deadline and missed an extension out to 1982. Five states even rescinded their ratification, although it’s unclear if this is even legally possible. Schlafly did this by preying on fears of expanded abortion rights, women in the draft and gender-neutral bathrooms. Ironically, Schlafly’s fight didn’t prevent any of these things from coming to the forefront. We now have gender-neutral bathrooms and women in the military. And while pro-choice advocates could benefit from an Equal Rights Amendment, I personally see no reason why the six conservative justices currently on the Supreme Court would have a hard time skirting around it.
So, is the fight over? Not really. The necessary three-fourths of American states have ratified the amendment with Nevada, Illinois and Virginia all doing so in the last couple of years, but, of course, the deadline has long since passed. It is still debated whether or not Congress could simply expand or eliminate the deadline completely. While this would most likely lead to a fight in the courts, which are increasingly conservative thanks to appointments made under President Trump, this fight would easily galvanize liberal support. From a purely political perspective, this fight could instill within the American left a concern for the judiciary that has been lacking for far too long and create a winning issue with the voters. But even from an idealistic perspective, it is still worth doing.
One may think that the ERA, while nice, isn’t truly necessary in modern society. After all, current legal interpretation holds that equality for women can be found in the 14th Amendment, and there are laws and policies from both Congress and the executive branch to secure those rights. But the problem is that these are all subject to revocation. With a 6 to 3 conservative 1majority, the Supreme Court could easily find that the 14th Amendment does not protect women’s rights. Doing so wouldn’t be difficult from a strict originalist interpretation. As the last four years have shown, elections have consequences and a president and/or a congress hostile to the fight for sexual equality is simply too big a risk to take.
As for the concerns of Schlafly and her ideological descendants, to me they are unfounded. Could women be placed in the draft, possibly, but this would only make the draft even more unpopular than it already is, therefore making it even less likely to return. As for Schlafly’s women’s “privileges,” of course, women have the right to not work and remain “in the home” (if that’s even an option for a shrinking number of Americans) just as men have the right to make that same decision themselves. We should not forget that just as patriarchy disempowers and infantilizes women, it also places undue burdens and expectations on men to fulfill traditional gender roles. When the entirety of the global population are placed into two strict roles based on the genitals they are born with, inevitably people are placed into unfair and inefficient structures.
Lastly, even if the amendment would have little practical purpose, it would serve as a statement that the United States is capable of righting previous wrongs. That we can achieve a more perfect union. Every American child would be taught of the Equal Rights Amendment, how we secured the rights of women and it would send a strong message to young people everywhere whether they be little girls or little boys that they needn’t be placed in boxes called gender roles. And lastly, it would show that a fight which began 100 years ago with the first writing of ERA has, after a long arduous road, been achieved. It would say to our posterity that no matter how hopeless a fight may seem, no matter how long it may take, there is no fight too hard or too long for justice.
George Christopher is a second-year journalism major wondering what congress is even up to these days. They can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.