All things being equal
The fourth time is a charm. Last week, for the fourth time in Nevada’s history, one house of the Legislature voted in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it down the hall for consideration by the other chamber. Nevada’s Legislature rejected the ERA in the same manner three previous times in the 1970s and thus remains one of 15 states that have refused to ratify equal rights for women in the U.S. Constitution.
I was a high school junior in a California beach town when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. The Vietnam War was escalating along with street activism and demands for social change. The women’s rights movement was inspiring women across the country to question their status and roles at work, at home and in society. It was an exciting time with an uncertain future.
California ratified the ERA in 1972, alongside the first group of states to do so. In neighboring Nevada, the struggle for women’s rights existed in the same national context but in a much more conservative environment. Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-gay zealot from Florida, led the national Stop-ERA campaign, claiming it would ban alimony, force housewives to work, and eliminate female-only restrooms. She often opened her barnstorming with the line, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight,” a sentiment Nevada’s male power structure appreciated.
Nevertheless, in 1973 and 1975, the ERA was approved in the Nevada Assembly, only to be defeated in the Senate. It’s telling to note there were just five women serving in the Nevada Legislature in 1973 and only seven in 1975. They were expected to dress “like women” (no pantsuits) and act appropriately, which meant not challenging the men in charge.
By 1977, the number of women in the Legislature had increased to eight, and the ERA was introduced again, this time in the Senate where it stalled in a 10-10 tie. In a dramatic moment, Lt. Governor Bob Rose broke the tie by casting his vote in favor of the ERA, only to see it die later in the session in the Assembly. Rose went on to run for Governor in 1978, but his campaign succumbed to a vitriol-laden backlash for that vote, and he lost. Several years ago, I asked him if he regretted that life-altering vote, and he immediately said no. He was proud he had the opportunity to support women’s rights, saying it was a highlight of his career.
Former state Senator Sue Wagner tried to push the ERA forward in 1981, but her fellow Republican Senator Floyd Lamb immediately moved for no further consideration and a voice vote sealed its fate.
Even though the 10-year time frame for ratification expired in 1982, the battle over Nevada’s ratification of the ERA didn’t end. Assemblymember Kathy McClain sponsored the resolution in 2009, but it didn’t make it out of committee. State Senator Pat Spearman introduced it in 2015, but it was killed by Republican leaders.
But now, in 2017, with Democrats in control of both houses and a renewed interest in politics from many women who see their rights threatened by politicians at the highest levels, Nevada is poised to become the 36th ratifying state. Opponents are still trotting out time-worn arguments about the draft and bathrooms, but they’ve updated their hysteria to include sharia law, destruction of the family unit, and the promotion of female genital mutilation.
As the 17 women in the Assembly and their 25 male counterparts prepare to vote on the ERA, they will have the opportunity to finally place Nevada on the right side of history, publicly proclaiming full equality for over half the state’s population. I suppose it’s better late than never.