Shouldn’t the Constitution formalize equality?
I asked three women in their 20s if they knew what the ERA was. One said “No,” the next said “The what?” and the third guessed “Earned Run Average.” It was amusing but sad.
Women of a certain age remember the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) quite vividly. We grew up during the feminist era, and the politics of change inspired us. We thought the ERA was a giant step towards equality and freedom, along with reproductive rights and breaking the glass ceiling of politics and employment.
The wording of the constitutional amendment was succinct and just. It made sense. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” But it was not to be. Thirty-eight states needed to ratify the ERA by 1979, and it came up three short.
The United States is hardly a constitutional leader on behalf of its female citizens. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has pointed out, “Every Constitution written since the end of World War II includes a provision that men and women are citizens of equal stature. Ours does not.”
During the ’70s, Phyllis Schlafly was ubiquitous, warning the ERA would mean women could be drafted into combat duties. Alimony and child support would be eliminated. And she wasn’t above using the specter of shared public bathrooms to frighten women into the opposition camp.
The ERA was never ratified in Nevada but not for lack of effort. In 1975, the Assembly passed it, but it died in the Senate. In 1977, Lt. Gov. Bob Rose broke a tied vote to ensure passage in the Senate, only to see it fail in the Assembly.
A background paper prepared by the Legislative Counsel Bureau in 1977 reveals the paternalistic thinking of that time, stating it “will take away rights and privileges which are important to women and substitute additional unwanted responsibilities. In their (opponents’) opinion, passage of ERA will deny women their present superior position in the home and family and remove legislation which protects women.”
In recent years, Assemblymember Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, who led the effort to have Nevada ratify the ERA, spearheaded legislation in 2005 and 2009, but the idea never caught on. No votes were even taken.
Fast forward to 2014 as ratification is on the table once again. State Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, who chairs the Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, has requested a Senate Joint Resolution to ratify the ERA in the 2015 legislative session. It needs a simple majority of both houses to pass and cannot be vetoed by the governor.
Although the Congressional deadline for ratification expired long ago, there is legislation pending in Washington to set a new timeframe although action in the states is needed to bring the issue to the forefront of a stalled Congress. Nevada could become the first state in the 21st century to boldly pass the ERA, a move that would partially redeem our slow crawl towards marriage equality.
What is there to be afraid of, really?
In today’s political climate, ERA opponents are sticking with the “meddling federal government” argument, invoking the issue of states’ rights, appealing to Nevadans’ libertarian side. But without the enforcement arm of the federal government, the concise words of equal rights will hold little ability to promote the economic security that comes from equal pay for equal work.
It really boils down to whether we believe in the core principle of equality. As Spearman recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “It’s time for us to say unequivocally that equal rights are just equal rights. There is no caveat. There is no asterisk. There is no exception.”