Rep. Carolyn Maloney

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Lawmakers and advocates vowed this week to revive a moribund effort to pass legislation that would amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women.

New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney reintroduced the Women’s Equality Amendment Tuesday, telling supporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill that the legislation stands a better chance at winning ratification in this Congress than it has at any time in recent years because of the changed political climate.

Two House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the amendment, backed up Maloney.

Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers of Michigan and New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, both pledged to hold hearings on the amendment this year. They have not yet set a date for the hearings, which would be the first since the 1980s.

"We are tired of running around stopping inequality when it rears its ugly head," Maloney said, adding she has "great hope" the amendment will pass Congress this year.

The new push for the amendment–also known as the Equal Rights Amendment–capped off a two-day conference here sponsored by the National Council for Women’s Organizations that drew hundreds of advocates from across the country to lobby Congress on issues ranging from women’s health to workplace rights to violence against women.

The National Council for Women’s Organizations is a clearinghouse of women’s groups in Washington that represents more than 10 million women.

Conference participants–including Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal and National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy–laid out a national agenda that included a host of proposals including bills that would reduce unintended pregnancy, grant workers paid sick leave and fully fund federal programs that combat violence against women.

Also near the top of the list is an international treaty to ban discrimination against women. The United States is the only developed country in the world that has not signed the 1979 treaty, known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

Gathering of Leaders

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination who was endorsed by major women’s groups on Wednesday, also emphasized priorities such as narrowing the wage gap and better access to affordable, high-quality child care and health care.

"We have a long list of things we need to address, and now we have a Democratic Congress" to do it, Clinton said to wild applause.

Prominent women such as Dolores Huerta, who led the movement for farm workers’ rights, and Mal Johnson, an African American broadcast journalist who was the first black reporter from a major news organization to cover the White House, also addressed the conference.

The two-day conference follows a similar event five years ago. Organizers said they hoped to make it an annual event.

The meeting came on the heels of a leadership conference for young women sponsored by the Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group in Arlington, Va. About 350 young women between the ages of 18 to 24 attended the "Campus to Congress" conference, and about five dozen stayed on for the two-day conference that immediately followed to network with older activists.

Gloria Pierce, 69, who oversees women’s health at Business and Professional Women of New Jersey, based in Ewing, N.J., said the younger women had inspired her to believe that another generation will carry on the women’s rights movement.

Lauren Wallace, a senior at West Virginia University, promised to do that at the news conference announcing reintroduction of the ERA. She said she would help rebuild the movement for ratification on college campuses.

"You can count on us," she said. "We’re going to take the baton from our grandmothers and others who worked so hard on this issue and we’re going to start working hard for it too."

Opposition Mounts

Wallace and others will face sturdy opposition from religious conservatives, who say the ERA amendment can be used to further efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and subsidize abortion.

Critics also say the amendment is unnecessary because women already have legal remedies to combat discrimination. The Fourteenth Amendment, they note, requires the states to provide equal protection under the law, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects women from discrimination in the private sector.

Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group in Washington that opposes the ERA, issued a release saying the amendment would actually undermine gains by the women’s rights movement because it does not allow for different treatment of men and women. That, according to the group, would make agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration’s Office on Women’s Health and the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women unconstitutional.

"The ERA is a simplistic, naive effort that would not allow any distinction between men and women and is limited to actions by the government, not individuals, businesses or private entities," Concerned Women for America President Wendy Wright said in a statement. "The ERA would be used to do far more harm than good."

Supporters say the bill is needed, among other reasons, to defend existing gains, such as Title IX, the 1972 law mandating gender equality in institutions that accept federal funds, which has been challenged by the Bush administration.

"As it stands now, what judges and lawmakers giveth, they can taketh away," Maloney said.

ERA Proposed in 1923

The Equal Rights Amendment was first unveiled in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1923 at the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention. Congress passed the amendment in 1972, but it died a decade later because it failed to win ratification by three-fourths of the states within a pre-set time limit.

Lawmakers have reintroduced the amendment in every Congress since in the hopes that they can once again win the support needed to amend the Constitution. But the effort came to be viewed by some as more of a ritual than an actual initiative, especially in recent years under Republican control of Congress.

This year is different, Maloney said. After 12 years of Republican leadership, Democrats now control the House and Senate. And there are more women than ever in state and federal office–including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi has not yet endorsed this year’s amendment, but she has supported it in the past, Maloney said. "She’s with us in her heart."

Nearly 200 House lawmakers have already signed on to the legislation and other key Democrats have also endorsed the measure and called to revive the movement. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts introduced the bill in the Senate Tuesday.

"A bolder effort is clearly needed to finally live up to our commitment of full equality," Kennedy said in a statement. "The Equal Rights Amendment alone cannot remedy all discrimination, but it will clearly strengthen the ongoing efforts of women across the country to obtain equal treatment."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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