After last November’s elections, a headline in the Star Tribune read, “After nearly a century, ERA might finally pass.” The Equal Rights Amendment simply states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on the account of sex.”

Wait a minute. It has taken nearly 100 years, and the ERA is still not part of our Constitution? That is hard to believe.

Since the Democrats won both houses of the state legislature in Virginia, their state may be the 38th to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The United States Constitution allows two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate to pass an amendment that then must be ratified by three-fourths — that is, 38 — of the states. Virginia could be the state which provides the final ratification.

On a road trip this summer, I just happened to see a sign for the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Although I had no idea we would be driving by Seneca Falls, this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

There is a small museum, and the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel is now preserved as an historical site. In 1848, it hosted the first women’s rights convention insisting that all men and women are created equal.

Their “Declaration of Sentiments” went on to demand equal rights in property, custody, education, professions, the church and politics. The group feared it might be too radical, but they agreed to also demand women’s suffrage — the right to vote.

It took 72 years for women’s suffrage to be enacted as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Prior to its passing, suffragette Alice Paul was tired of waiting, so she proposed an amendment to the constitution. Her bill was the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment and was introduced in Congress in 1924, where it languished.

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act was proposed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, color or national origin — but not sex. Historians now say the language prohibiting sex discrimination, and only in employment, was added to the bill in an effort to sabotage it. It was assumed that even those in Congress who supported racial equality would never support gender equality.

Well, the law passed, but it only provided one fraction of equal rights for women.

Both political parties’ platforms had supported the ERA since the 1940s. In the early ‘70s there was renewed emphasis to move on the amendment. It passed both houses and was submitted to the states on March 22, 1972. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter backed it.

Hawaii was the first to approve the ERA, on the same day as Congress. Minnesota passed it in 1973. Within one year, a majority of states had ratified the proposal, and it was assumed it was on its way to ratification.

Then along came Phyllis Schlafly and the “Stop ERA” campaign, insisting that women, in their traditional role as housewives, needed legal protections, not equality.

It seems ironic to me that it was Schlafly’s mother’s job that carried her family through the Depression and allowed Phyllis to continue her education. Schlafly herself was college-educated, a lawyer, author, political activist, radio personality and frequent public speaker.

By many standards she was a working woman, not just a homemaker. Her career almost defines the feminism that she abhorred. However, her campaign to derail the ERA was successful. The Republican Party even withdrew support for the ERA from its platform in 1980.

By the first ERA ratification deadline in 1979, only 35 of the required 38 states had ratified the amendment. The deadline was extended, and some states tried to rescind their ratification. There were no further ratifications before a second deadline in 1982.

Although there have been many piecemeal women’s rights laws passed by the federal government and some states, they are always subject to court challenges and revisions. A constitutional amendment would offer women much more protection.

The ERA sat for 35 years until interest recently reignited. Nevada passed the amendment in 2017, followed by Illinois in 2018. Virginia may ratify it in 2020. Even then, there will be legal battles. Can the deadline be challenged or extended? Can states rescind their ratification?

Aside from Virginia, 12 other states have never ratified the amendment: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.

It is hard to believe, but the Star Tribune headline was accurate. It has been almost 100 years since the ERA was proposed by Alice Paul in 1924. Personally, I don’t understand how our country can insist that over half of its population does not have equal rights. Come on, Virginia. It’s time to get this done.

Rochelle Eastman is one of several people in the community who write for Community Voices.


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