Did the Equal Rights Amendment ever pass in the 1970s? The answer is no, although recent polling suggests about 80% of Americans think it did.
Is it dead? Maybe, maybe not. Although the amendment was passed by only 35 states — not the required 38 — by the 1982 deadline, two more states have since ratified it. Nevada did so in 2017 and Illinois just this past May. This has created an energy for ratification that has swelled in recent months.
Thus, members of the ERA Coalition were in Wilton on Aug. 24 for a luncheon at Rolling Hills Country Club to drum up support for the final state’s passage. They were joined by Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th). The states being targeted are Virginia, Florida and Maine. Connecticut passed the amendment in 1973.
Carol Jenkins is betting on Virginia by 2019. “I am fighting for this until I die,” the retired NBC-TV news anchor said. Jenkins is on the board of the ERA Coalition and attended the luncheon. “I am determined my children and grandchildren will live in a world that respects women,” she said, adding that her nine-year-old granddaughter has already been lobbying on Capitol Hill. “There is not a viable argument against it.”
Susan Aronson of Westport and Jamie Kapel of Weston were among the 31 women from New York and Connecticut who attended. “I’m a big fan of Jim and I’m a big fan of the ERA,” Aronson said, referring to Himes. “I hope to learn more about it.” That was a common sentiment regarding the would-be amendment that has lain dormant for more than three decades.
“I’m always interested in women’s rights and I’m excited to hear it’s coming back,” Kapel said.
Attorney Carol Robles-Román, co-president and CEO of the coalition and its sister organization the Fund for Women’s Equality, addressed the group. The former corporate lawyer turned New York Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights said, “The fight for constitutional equality is alive and well.”
She explained the coalition was founded in 2014 by Jessica Neuwirth, author of the book Equal Means Equal, who is co-president. It was formed to coordinate national efforts to pass the amendment.
When Nevada did so, many people thought it was a “one-off,” she said. “That became the ERA Coalition’s and its 100 members’ opportunity to say, ‘oh, no, this was not a one-off. Watch this. Watch this then happened in Illinois in May.”
Robles-Román was also deputy mayor and counsel to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for 12 years. “I have been in some of the most powerful rooms in America — funding, policy issues — and I was often either the only woman or one of two women and many times the feeling was, ‘well, you’re lucky to be here.’”
She believes “this room should be equal. This is not equality.”
As head of the women’s rights organization Legal Momentum before coming to the coalition, she realized “the path to the courthouse was not available to most women. Many women were discriminated against. … If you speak to a federal judge with a lie detector on their arm, they will say they despise civil rights cases.”
In regard to laws that purport to protect women, she asked, “Why do we need an Equal Rights Amendment? Because you also need a lawyer, you also need a courthouse, and you also need a judge that agrees that equal means equal.
“So we need a culture shift. We need an Equal Rights Amendment enshrined in the Constitution period, exclamation point, end of story.”
A major difference between then and now is the impact of social media. Earlier this year, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York hosted what Robles-Román termed “a shadow hearing” to which 15 members of Congress showed up along with a standing- room-only crowd. A video on the site NowThis had one million viewings within two days, she said.
“Now we know, people are hungering for this. The time has come.”
Picking up on this theme, Himes asked rhetorically, “Can you imagine that just 100 years ago women did not have the vote?” Shortly after women’s suffrage passed, the ERA was introduced in 1923, although it languished for decades before Congress passed it in 1972 and sent it on to the states.
“We’re in a retrograde moment,” Himes said. “We are moving backward on issues of equality and justice in this country. It’s very explicit in terms of racial justice coming from the highest office in the land where we have some ambiguity whether there was good and bad on both sides in Charlottesville, Va., … we’re seeing this against immigrants … It’s a mistake to think that retrograde movement doesn’t have an effect on the equality and treatment of women.
“When laws change, culture doesn’t necessarily change,” he continued, referring to the #MeToo movement. “I was shocked by the pervasiveness of the entitlement that pervaded all sorts of workplaces from Hollywood to where I work to journalism.
“We need to step up and say ‘no, it is not OK to move backward on issues like women’s reproductive rights, like access to birth control, etc.’ What does that mean? I think it means a lot of things for parents, for houses of faith — synagogues and churches have a lot to do with creating values in our society.”
Republicans, he said, “need to find the spine” to stand up against that retrograde movement. Democrats need to remember language is important in creating understanding. “How we talk about it in areas that are not supportive is important,” he said.
What is the ERA?
The main clause of the Equal Rights Amendment states: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. According to the ERA Coalition, the amendment would make several changes, including:
- Giving Congress the constitutional basis to pass a law that gives women victimized by gender-based violence legal recourse in federal courts.
- Help set more realistic legal standards for sex discrimination at work, so it would be more possible to prove.
- Ensure that women can continue to work, and work safely, throughout pregnancy.
- Obligating the Supreme Court to consider the discriminatory impact of Hobby Lobby’s claim to religious freedom on the women employed by the company.
The effort to recognize ratification of the amendment is being led by Congresswoman Maloney, who has reintroduced it to Congress 11 times.