Sandy Oestreich

TAMPA, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–Dennis Port is no stranger to war, but these days the 58-year-old veteran is on the front lines of a different kind of battle: the effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified into the U.S. Constitution.

“Men need to be involved in this fight,” Port says. “The stigma, the ‘us against them’ mentality, has to be dismantled because men are affected by discrimination too, and the ERA doesn’t apply only to women, it applies to everyone.”

Port can trace his worries about equality and the ERA back to the Vietnam War when he watched a friend unsuccessfully petition the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to get his local wife and child out of the country.

“As it stands the child of an American woman automatically got citizenship no matter who the father is, but the child of an American male has no such guarantees,” Port recalls of his friend’s ordeal. The more he looked around, the more examples Port found of men falling victim to sex discrimination, particularly when it came to their kids and questions of custody or other parental rights, but also cases of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Port volunteers with the Florida Equal Rights Alliance, one of the country’s most energetic initiatives aimed at getting a state to ratify the amendment. He was one of the men asked by the alliance in 2006 to argue in favor of the ERA at hearings in front of Florida’s congressional representatives.

Supporters are heavily focused on three of 15 states, including Florida, that did not ratify the ERA during the first 10 years after it was introduced in 1972.

“Every year opponents raise new issues against the ERA–mostly smoke and mirrors–and every year we fight them down with substantive and evidentiary arguments. They’re running out of new arguments and that means it’s time to tighten our strategy for the end game,” says Sandy Oestreich, founder of the Florida Equal Rights Alliance, based in North Redington Beach.

Old Battle, New Warriors

The promise of an enshrined equality has been around since suffragist Alice Paul declared in 1923 that freedom from sex discrimination required constitutional protection and worded the version of the Equal Rights Amendment introduced by legislators in every congressional session from then to 1972, when it passed.

During the next decade, 35 state legislatures ratified the ERA, leaving supporters only three states short of the necessary three-quarters when the pre-set time limit for ratification expired in 1982. At the time, many supporters considered the ERA to have quietly died.

Roberta Francis

Federal lawmakers have continued to reintroduce the ERA. The most recent, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in March as the Women’s Equality Amendment, has over 200 co-sponsors and is currently awaiting committee hearings. The bill must be approved by both houses of Congress before it can be returned to the 50 state legislatures for ratification.

With Democrats in control of Congress supporters believe this is the best chance in years to get the required two-thirds majority votes in favor of the ERA to jump start the process.

“American women have made extraordinary strides . . . but unfortunately women still face sex discrimination in many aspects of their lives. We need an ERA and we have a much better environment for passage now than in 1972,” Maloney told Women’s eNews.

Different Methods, One Goal

But supporters differ over strategies for securing passage.

Supporters of Maloney’s bill envision that earlier ratification efforts be scrapped–because the original deadline expired in 1982, thereby leaving the validity of those ratifications in question–and the process started again.

The second strategy–preferred by most ERA supporters, according to advocates interviewed by Women’s eNews–would see the campaign move ahead with the existing list of 35 states in search of three additional states to push the tally over the three-fourths ratification hurdle. Mounting efforts to ratify in three states would be easier than repeating the process in 38.

Supporters believe that legal precedent exists to keep the original ratifications alive in the example of the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, which deals with congressional pay raises. It achieved the three-fourths benchmark in 1992, a full 203 years after it went to the states for ratification in 1789.

Also, because the time limit that was set for the ERA was not specifically included in the amendment text it is not binding.

“There will be challenges ahead either way. Even if the three-state method goes forward successfully, the reality is there would be a lawsuit challenging the method’s legality that would likely go all the way to the Supreme Court,” says Elisabeth Gehl, co-chair of the ERA Task Force for the Washington-based National Council of Women’s Organizations. “Any way that gets the ERA passed is a good way.”

Ultimately, activist work that supports both strategies maintains a higher public profile for the ERA overall.

Battling Down Arguments

Supporters in Florida–who believe their state is one of those most likely to ratify the ERA along with Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas–have put on tireless grassroots campaigns and battled down traditional arguments from opponents that adding the ERA amendment to the Constitution would promote same-sex marriages, women in the military, unisex bathrooms and rampant abortion.

“We have all of those things already,” says Oestreich. “What we don’t have is equal protection for both men and women before the law.”

One of the new arguments opponents raise against the ERA posits that it simply isn’t needed now that women are already CEOs of large corporations, running for president and achieving gains unthinkable a few decades ago.

“There are other issues–religious ones, balance of power between the sexes, fear–but at its core the ERA is a financial tool that would help the economy and improve the quality of life for all,” says Oestreich. “For big businesses that enjoy the labor of one of the last unprotected, underpaid classes, of course, the ERA seems outdated and unnecessary.”

Other campaigners argue the ERA remains vital because piecemeal battles to fight for protection under other sex-discrimination laws diverts the public from the larger issue of equality for all citizens.

“Attention has repeatedly been diverted off to fighting off challenges to Title IX education and sports protections, pay inequity and other immediate attacks and that makes it difficult to keep people energetic about the ERA,” says Roberta Francis, education chair for the National Council of Women’s Organizations ERA Task Force.

While most ERA campaigners believe the political pendulum is swinging in their favor, few have any illusions about the future.

“It’s still going to be a long battle,” Gehl believes. “But with a woman seeking the presidency that will help draw attention to women’s rights and we hope to see the ERA on party platforms, more debate about women’s rights and a resurgence of energy around the movement.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Tampa, Fla., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

“Women’s Leaders Put ERA Back on Agenda”:

The Equal Rights Amendment:

Ratify ERA Florida:

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