(WOMENSENEWS)--Nearly a century ago, women campaigning for the vote stood in the freezing snow, the blazing sun and the pelting rain outside the White House silently holding banners asking, "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?"
Now, as Women's Equality Day rolls around yet again tomorrow--celebrating 91 years of U.S. women's right to vote--the message of those banners needs resurrecting, but with a modern twist.
They should read: "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Equality?"
If President Barack Obama would get behind House Joint Resolution 47, his answer to us all could be: "Not long at all."
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, chose the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day to introduce the resolution last March. It seeks to remove the deadline from the original 1972 bill on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by 35 states before the deadline expired in 1982.
The deadline was not part of the original ERA and by 1982 it had already been extended by three years.
HJ Resolution 47 would require passage by a simple majority of both houses.
After that, ERA ratification would need only three more states.
Those votes could come from any of these holdouts: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.
The ERA states: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex. In 2011, it's hard to think what lawmakers in these states should find controversial about that.
Carolyn Cook is founder and CEO of United 4 Equality, the Washington group that devised the HJ Resolution 47 strategy of removing the deadline. Cook and her colleagues worked on it for three years and they aim to have the final three states ratified by 2015.
Starting Over Fall-Back Strategy
The only other option is to start the ERA over again, destroying the work of women more than 30 years ago who campaigned for and won 35 ratified states.
"Ours is the new strategy. Start-over is the fall-back," said Cook.
She describes the group as "the voice of the 15 states that are working to ratify the ERA today." United 4 Equality also represents the 35 states that already ratified it and the 72 percent of the population who must not be disenfranchised, she said, referring to the percentage of the population in the states who have already ratified it.
ERA workers have encountered a huge obstacle at the state level in regards to the deadline. Its removal would allow women who fought for the ERA in the 1970s the chance to see it passed in their lifetime.
A speedy passage of HJ Resolution 47 by Congress would continue a long history of bipartisan support for the ERA, helping bring women under the protection of the Constitution faster.
Alice Paul launched the ERA 88 years ago. Paul was a Republican and the architect of the final groundbreaking campaign that won women the vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. "Iron Jawed Angels," the HBO movie starring Hilary Swank, immortalized her story and that of other members of the National Woman's Party.
Republicans originally introduced the ERA in Congress in 1923 and the Republican party put it on its platform in 1940. The Democrats followed in 1944, and it remained in both platforms for several decades. With the ERA's apparent demise in 1982, neither party has seriously supported it, although Democrats have re-introduced the start-over measure in every Congress since 1982.
Obama should now be promoting a bipartisan vote on HJ Resolution 47. He relied on women's votes during his election and now he could finally repay the favor.
Increasingly Hollow Celebration
Women's Equality Day was first proclaimed in 1971, more than 50 years after the huge victory of the 19th Amendment. As the years pass and the ERA remains in limbo, the idea of celebrating women's equality because they won the vote nearly a century ago rings increasingly hollow.
For the sad fact in 21st century United States is that women – no matter what we might think to the contrary – do not have equal rights under the law.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated the fact of women's continuing inequality in the United States clearly in an interview that appeared last January in California Lawyer magazine, when he said the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. He added that when legislators passed the 14th Amendment into law in the mid-19th century it wasn't with the intention to apply the equal protection clause to sex discrimination and that applying that clause in judicial decisions about sex discrimination is an error.
Many women's groups castigated Justice Scalia for what he said, but no amount of "shooting the messenger" will change the fact that equality of the sexes does not exist in the United States in 2011.
Some Supreme Court justices do interpret the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to extend some protections under the Constitution to women, but as they do so with less stringent standards than they apply to race, by simple logic, equality for women does not exist.
The ERA is important, because it would change that. If the ERA was already part of the Constitution, for instance, the Supreme Court might have made a different decision in the Wal-Mart equal pay class-action suit that women lost in June. Or President Obama might not have needed to sign the Lily Ledbetter bill into law in early 2009 if the Supreme Court had had the ERA's sex equality standards in Ledbetter's equal pay case.
Our lack of an ERA is a huge national failure.
It creates disabilities for both sexes. Take these examples. Federal laws that prescribe equality, such as Title IX, which has helped women with equal opportunity in sports and elsewhere, are vulnerable to repeal and modification because no equality exists in our nation's fundamental law, which is the standard that applies to all law.
The ERA may have also tipped the outcome of a recent case in favor of men. In June, in Flores-Villar v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed apparent sex discrimination against men when its 4-4 vote allowed a federal law to remain in place that makes it harder for fathers than mothers to transmit citizenship to their out-of-wedlock children born abroad.
Women currently bear the greater burden of an unratified ERA, however, as they lack a key tool to fight unequal pay or other unequal penalties under the law even as they do not enjoy equal rights.
U.S. ambassadors have promoted equal rights for women in the Iraq and Afghanistan constitutions. Not having something similar here in the U.S. makes a mockery of the United States' position as a world beacon for human rights.
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Bernadette Cahill is an author and journalist based in Little Rock, Ark., and Boone, N.C. She specializes in women's issues and women's history.
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