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Diehards Breathe Life into Equal Rights Amendment

Friday, March 18, 2005

Dozens of lawmakers braved a blustery spring afternoon to hail the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment. Thought to have died in 1982, the attempt to provide women's rights constitutional protection is still very much alive.

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Dozens of lawmakers braved a blustery spring afternoon to hail the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment. Thought to have died in 1982, the attempt to provide women's rights constitutional protection is still very much alive.
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Idella Moore

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Dozens of lawmakers and women's rights activists gathered in the shadow of the Capitol on a blustery afternoon Tuesday to hail the reintroduction of legislation that would add a few sentences about sex to the Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women.

After the conclusion of the celebratory press conference, speakers conceded, however, that the Equal Rights Amendment is moving nowhere fast. The amendment was first passed by Congress in 1972, but died a decade later because it failed to win approval by three-fourths of the states within a pre-set time limit.

"In this environment, much of our agenda won't go very far," said Martha Burk, chair of the Washington-based National Council of Women's Organizations, an umbrella group of nearly 200 women's rights groups that was founded in 1983 after the amendment was defeated. "I don't think Republicans will allow it to come up for a vote."

Phyllis Schlafly, the social conservative who led the campaign to torpedo the amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s, agreed. "I don't think it has a ghost of a chance," she said in a telephone interview. "I think they're just looking for a press release."

There is a good reason for the skepticism.

In the first three months of this congressional cycle, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have put legislation backed by women's rights groups--such as a proposed hike in the minimum wage--on the back burner. At the same time, they have advanced bills opposed by the same activists, such as a measure that would make it harder for debtors, most of whom are women, to get a fresh financial start by filing for bankruptcy. Bush has also proposed massive budget cuts to programs that aid women and children, including a proposed $60 billion cut to Medicaid over the next decade.

Those efforts come after four years in which Bush, along with religious conservative congressional leaders, worked to limit reproductive rights and undermine laws protecting equality in the workplace and in sports and education. Activists contend that, taken together, these legislative efforts represent a "war on women" that has forced women's rights activists to devote more of their resources toward fighting the opposition rather than promoting their own agenda.


Diehards Will Not Let ERA Be Buried

Nonetheless, women's rights activists refuse to surrender a prize they have been fighting for since 1923, when suffragist Alice Paul traveled to Seneca Falls to unveil the first equal rights amendment at the 75th anniversary of the storied 1848 Women's Rights Convention.

The amendment was introduced in every session of Congress since then until it passed a half century later, in 1972. As it had done on all amendments (with one exception) since the amendment that barred the manufacturing and consumption of alcohol, Congress applied a seven-year time limit for ratification. In its first year out of Congress, 22 of the needed 38 states approved the amendment, leaving proponents optimistic that they would meet the deadline. But their mood soured as the political climate turned more conservative and progress slowed.

Three states short of ratification and one year away from the deadline, women's groups lobbied Congress for an extension and won three more years. The battle came down to Illinois, which approved it and then rescinded it. It officially died on June 30, 1982.

Ever since then, lawmakers have reintroduced the amendment at the start of every Congress in the hopes that they can once again win the two-thirds support needed to amend the Constitution. But the effort has come to be viewed by some as more of a ritual than an actual initiative, especially in recent years as religious conservatives have consolidated their hold on power.

"I think this is a really discouraging environment," said Jennifer Ring, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada in Reno. "I don't expect anything good to happen in the next few years."


Lack of ERA Could Be Used to Motivate Women

But if they can't enact the amendment in the near future, proponents hope to use legislation in another way: as an organizing tool. That was what motivated Burk to brave the gusty winds and speak at an outdoor press conference with few reporters in attendance. "We will make it an icon," she said, "a starting point we can rally around."

That is a smart strategy in a time when conservatives are in control, Ring said. "It's just more important than ever that the voice for equal rights for women not be silenced," she said.

Although appreciative of their efforts to keep up the drumbeat for equal rights, some activists say women's groups should do more to revive momentum for the amendment, which would provide new legal protections for women and, at the same time, shield them from efforts by hostile government leaders to take away rights already won.

Dispirited by the defeat of the amendment, women's groups have moved on to other causes, critics say. They have since expanded their portfolio of issues and, at the same time, seen a drop in activism, leaving them overcommitted and underfunded.

"Having a long agenda with few active members makes it very difficult to be successful at anything," said Idella Moore, an activist who describes herself as a modern day Rip Van Winkle. She left the country after the amendment was defeated and returned two decades later to find the movement had lost its momentum. Hoping to revive the debate, she founded 4ERA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that focuses exclusively on the equal rights amendment. Because it is fairly new and carries none of the political "baggage" associated with some feminist organizations, 4ERA has attracted support from members of all parties, ages and sexes, she said.

In addition to the "start-over strategy," so-called because it would mean supporters would have to cover the same territory in the halls of Congress and in the state Legislatures to pass the amendment, Moore is emphasizing the "three-state strategy", a plan based on a 1997 legal opinion that suggested that the time limit can be extended or repealed. Proponents of the strategy cite as precedent an amendment to raise congressional pay that was approved in 1992--203 years after it was first passed in Congress.

The "three-state" campaign is taking place in 13 of the 15 states that did not approve the amendment and is most active in states that came closest to adopting the amendment during the last campaign, Moore said. The most promising of these states is Illinois, where Democrats hold the governor's seat and both houses of the legislature. The amendment passed the state House in 2003 but stalled in the state Senate. An Illinois legislator has already reintroduced the bill in the state House.

Supporters are also actively lobbying state legislators in Florida and Missouri, two other states that came close to passing the amendment. Campaigns are also active--at various levels of intensity and development--in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Nevada and Mississippi, Moore said. There are no active campaigns in the two other states that did not pass the amendment, North Carolina and Utah.

Rep. Robert Andrews, a Democrat who represents Mount Laurel, N.J., the birthplace of Alice Paul, joined lawmakers at the congressional press conference to introduce a resolution at the federal level that would require Congress to verify the ratification of the amendment if and when the needed three states pass it.


Three States May Still Be Too Many

Proponents acknowledge that the three-state strategy--regarded by many as the easier of the two solutions--will not lead to victory in the near future.

The issue is not at the top of either party's agendas; both Republicans and Democrats, in fact, have dropped language supporting the amendment from their legislative platforms. And a great deal of ignorance surrounds the issue. A recent nationwide poll sponsored by 4ERA showed that 72 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that the Constitution already states that men and women are entitled to equal protections.

Meanwhile, religious conservatives continue their opposition to the amendment, claiming it would legalize same-sex marriage, draw women into military drafts and outlaw single-sex bathrooms.

"It would forbid us for making any differences for the treatment of men and women, at any time, at any place or any reason," Schlafly said. The three-state strategy, she added, is "dishonest and impossible . . . People are wasting their time."

Still, women's rights activists have no plans of giving up, whether that means they will continue to introduce the amendment at the start of every Congress until it wins a second passage or whether they find a way to circumvent the time limit.

There are some signs that they may one day find success. The United States, for example, has backed provisions in the Constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq that provide for women's equality. And in the United States, women from both parties--Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--are viewed as credible candidates for president in 2008.

"It seems to be that most things pass in America when they're way overdue," Ring said. "The Constitution is a kind of museum for struggles that have been fought and won."

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women's eNews.

For more information:

S. J. RES. 7
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relativeto equal rights for men and women
[Adobe PDF format]:
http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=109_cong_bills&docid=f:sj7is.txt.pdf

4ERA.org:
http://4era.org/

Equal Rights Amendment:
http://www.equalrightsamendment.org