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March 22, 2008

The ERA

Okay. Before we start... a quick confession:

At the beginning of every month, we usually look up all the holidays and events and birthdays and anniversaries for that month. That often gives us some inspiration for topics to write about for the month. Of course we also pay attention to what's going on in the news and what our friends on myspace are talking about and typically just write about whatever is going on in our lives and what's just on our minds... but sometimes we do like to see what little obscure "holidays" there are in addition to the major ones everyone already knows about.

That's usually where those little tidbits of random info like "It's Ruth Bader Ginsburg's birthday!" or "Today is World Marriage Day" or even "It's the anniversary of Dear Abby's first column" come from. (Come on, you knew we didn't know that stuff off the top of our heads!)

Anyway, as you already know... we've been trying to address as many Women's History Month issues as possible this March. So when we saw "The anniversary of the ratification of The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)" for March 22nd (1972), we got a little excited. And then of course we quickly remembered that the ERA wasn't actually officially completely ratified. The March 22nd anniversary actually marks the date that the ERA was approved by the full Senate without changes. So we're still going to write about it today, because well, we just are!


The Equal Rights Amendment is the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee equal rights under the law for Americans regardless of gender.

From the ERA:


Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


Sounds pretty straightforward, no? It's hard to imagine that it would take much to get an amendment like that into the Constitution nowadays, but we're still struggling to get it done. A brief timeline of the history of the ERA (and related events):


  • 1868: The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted (shortly after the Union victory in the American Civil War) and required the states the provide equal protection under the law to all persons.


  • 1923: The ERA was first introduced in Congress, having being written by Alice Paul, head of the National Women's Party and an important leader of the suffrage movement.


  • 1950: The ERA finally passed by the Senate (but with a rider that nullified its equal protection aspects).


  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and forbade discrimination on the basis of race and sex, in hiring, promoting, and firing. ("Sex" was added at the last moment).


  • 1970: In part due to the tireless efforts of the National Organization for Women, the ERA finally left the House Judiciary Committee.


  • 1971: The ERA was approved (without amendments) by the House of Representatives.


  • 1972: The ERA was approved by the full Senate without changes, but with a 7-year time limit for ratification. (This is today's "anniversary").

  • 1977: With the deadline fast approaching and only 35 states having ratified (3 short of the necessary 38), a bill asking for an extension was introduced.


  • 1978: Just 7 months before the deadline, the House of Representatives approved an extension until 1982.


  • 1981: The ERA extension was ruled illegal, a ruling which NOW immediately appealed.


  • 1982: The Supreme Court entered a (rarely granted) unanimous stay prohibiting the enforcement of the original ruling and agreeing to hear NOW's appeal at a later date. Unfortunately, the ERA was stopped just three states short of ratification. The ERA was officially reintroduced in Congress later that year.


  • 1983: The House of Representatives failed to pass the ERA by only 6 votes short of a required two-thirds majority. The ERA was reintroduced into each session of Congress and held in Committee... every year following.


  • 1992: A "three-state strategy" for ERA ratification was developed, because many ERA supporters have argued that Congress has the power to maintain the legal viability of the ERA's existing 35 state ratifications long after the original time limit. (This precedent was set by the Madison Amendment on congressional salaries, which took 203 years to ratify).

  • 1995: NOW proposed a similar amendment, the Constitutional Equality Amendment (CEA).

  • Present: The ERA has been introduced again as "S.J. Res 10" and "H.J. Res. 40", with no deadline on the ratification process.

One argument against the ERA has been that it is unnecessary, as the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act already provide equal protection. (Other arguments have ranged into more ridiculous territory, like 'we'll have to get rid of separate bathrooms and make everything unisex, and then society as we know it will crumble!') The 14th Amendment guarantees basic rights to all "persons", however those "persons" were for so long defined only as men. If the 14th Amendment covered everything there would not have been the need for the 15th Amendment (which stated that the rights of citizens would not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude) or the 19th Amendment (which stated that the right of citizens to vote would not be denied based on sex).

Although originally intended to deal with racial discrimination, the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act have been applied to sex discrimination. However, sex discrimination claims never got the highest level of judicial scrutiny as many felt they deserved and the 14th Amendment's wording still allows for legal differentiation by sex to stand in many cases.

The right to vote is still the only right currently given specifically to women by our Constitution.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

How do you define "equal" rights vs "special rights" - as a professional woman, I've disagreed with the need to legalize "rights" that should be common curtesy (OK - I'm a lot older than you!). In decades of working, I've never felt that my progress was based on anything other than my professional abilities (OK - once upon a time I did work for a misogonist, but he would have been what he was regardless of any legal issues telling him to behave!).