The Equal Rights Amendment Inches Forward: A 100-Year Fight for Gender Equality | Sojourners

The Equal Rights Amendment Inches Forward: A 100-Year Fight for Gender Equality

The House Judiciary Committee today held the first hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment in 36 years. The ERA affirms that, “Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” If the ERA passes, the word “women” would appear in the Constitution for the first time in history.

During today’s hearing, the Committee specifically heard from witnesses — professors, actresses, and legislators —on whether Congress should lift the already passed expiration date to ratify the amendment, as outlined in H.J.Res.38. If passed, this legislation could lead to the successful end of the ERA’s 100-year journey. The amendment was first proposed in 1923 and re-written in 1943 by Alice Paul. Congress passed Paul’s version by the required two-thirds majority in 1972. However, only 35 states ratified the legislation by the extended 1982 deadline — falling three states short of what the Constitution requires.

Actress Patricia Arquette, who referenced the ERA in her 2015 Oscars’ acceptance speech, expressed an historical impatience for the passage of the ERA. “Women have been waiting 232 years for equality in this nation,” she said during her witness testimony.

A multigenerational crowd overflowed the hearing room, dressed largely in all white as a nod to the Suffragettes’ role in this long fight for gender equality. Their audible enthusiasm seemed to affirm Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s (D-N.Y.) suspicion that “the drumbeat of the Equal Rights Amendment has never been louder.”

In 2017, Nevada became the first state to ratify the ERA after its deadline. At the time, state senator Pat Spearman (D-Nev.) argued that the deadline was “irrelevant,” insisting that if the deadline had already shifted once — from 1979 to 1982 — what was stopping Congress from extending the timeline once more?

Those in opposition to the ERA expressed fear that the Equal Rights Amendment would both fortify and extend abortion rights, though the author of the legislation disputed this statement as divisive and distracting. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) warned that the ERA might extend protections to transgender individuals, while other witnesses voiced excitement about this possibility.

Sen. Spearman, an ordained pastor who invoked scripture during her witness testimony, responded passionately to opposition against the ERA:

“I’d find it laughable if it weren’t so tragic: People who are born in privilege always debate whether those who were not deserve equality. What we are talking about here is the fact that equality is not debatable. We are born with it.”

While Spearman’s faith helps motivate her support of the ERA, Christians have historically played a key role in thwarting its ratification. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Christian activist, emerged as the ERA’s most formidable opponent, spreading fear that it would encourage abortion, LGBTQ rights, and women in the military. She once referred to feminists as “a bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems.”

What Schlafly characterized as personal problems, Arquette identifies as systemic problems that need a structural — and constitutional — solution. She compared the fight for gender equality in the U.S. to a high stakes game of Whac-A-Mole: Just as we stomp down one gender injustice, say shackling prisoners during childbirth, another gender injustice emerges: a back log of hundreds of thousands of rape kits, for instance. A constitutional amendment supporting gender equality, argued several of the witnesses, would give both federal and state governments the power to holistically rectify these patterns of discrimination.

With today’s hearing, the ERA has gained momentum on its pathway to implementation, though the road ahead is still unclear. If the House votes in favor of extending the deadline, the Senate would have to follow suit. And if H.J.Res.38 makes it through Congress, the Supreme Court would have to uphold a ratification process that required two deadline extensions. This debate extends back to our founding fathers and will likely continue.

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams about his involvement with the Continental Congress: “By the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), one of the fist Latinas from Texas ever elected to the House, harkened back to this letter toward the end of the hearing: “Abigail Adams asked them to remember the ladies,” she said. “Obviously they did not, and that’s why we’re here today.”

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