A few months ago, journalist Rachel Leventhal had a conversation with three young women about gender equality and the Equal Rights Amendment. It was one of those conversations that yielded more questions than answers, namely: Why don’t women already have constitutional equality, and what would it really mean if we did? In this series, through interviews with lawyers, scholars, activists, and the young women themselves, Rachel sets out to uncover answers to the question many of us have: “How Would the ERA Impact Our Daily Lives?” Hoping to keep her young friends empowered and engaged in the face of rollbacks and uncertainty, this series is her “love letter” to them:
In this first chapter, we join the women who’ve been leading the fight for the ERA in a celebration – of sorts…..
Chapter 1: The ERA’s Birthday Rally (aka “Enough Already!”)
“There’s never been a battle for women’s rights that hasn’t taken a very long time. And it has forced women to chain themselves to the fence outside the White House, to go on hunger strikes, to have their eyes poked out, to be sexually assaulted in jail.” – Congresswoman Jackie Spier
January 27, 2022 was a bitter cold day in Washington DC, where a group of mostly women, many north of seventy, gathered in Lafayette Square just across from the White House. The mood was part celebration and part “enough already.”
A woman in her 80’s, with short grey hair, was speaking at the podium while women in the crowd waved small copies of the US Constitution in the air.
“It’s cold, but we can handle it, she said. “And we can also handle the fact that we’re going to get the Archivist to certify and publish the Equal Rights Amendment. But in the meantime, we published it ourselves.”
The woman speaking was Eleanor Smeal, or just “Ellie” to many in the crowd who’ve been marching alongside her for half a century. Known as “one of the modern architects of the drive for women’s equality,” she’s been publisher of Ms. Magazine for over two decades; three-time President of National Organization for Women, which has been a leader in the drive to ratify the ERA since 1968; and is currently president of Feminist Majority Foundation. In other words, she’s been in this fight since the Stone Age.
The Constitution the women were holding up includes the 28th Amendment, the ERA: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Its publication was an acknowledgement of this day, January 27, 2022, as the day the Equal Rights Amendment went into effect, and the end of the two-year waiting period which began counting down when Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. This means that, after nearly a century, the ERA has now met all of the constitutional requirements to become the law of the land.
“They were foolish to make us wait this long…If they had given this to us in 1968,” Ellie egged-on the crowd, “we wouldn’t have the power of the political movement that we now have.” For example, one of the rally’s hosts, the ERA Coalition, is an umbrella that has, at last count, grown to 250 diverse organizations, all coordinating legal and political efforts like a well-rehearsed football play – not just to get the ERA into the US Constitution, but to get individual state ERAs passed and discriminatory laws changed. “We’re all together. Every organization is with us.”
In a press conference that morning, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who has been leading the charge in the US House of Representatives, summed it up perfectly “So, you know, there’s never been a battle for women’s rights that hasn’t taken a very long time. And it has forced women to chain themselves to the fence outside the White House, to go on hunger strikes, to have their eyes poked out, to be sexually assaulted in jail.”
“This is our turn,” said Smeal from the podium just before the other leaders of the movement spoke. “We’ve already wasted 100 years of fighting for the obvious. It took us 50 years to get it passed by Congress. And then another 50 years to get the states to ratify. And then two years to wait. It’s enough already!” The crowd cheered in response.
But since women have to do twice the amount work for the same reward, Smeal continued, “now they’re throwing more wrenches in it.” In this case, the wrench is a deadline that was included in the preamble of the amendment, which expired in 1982 before the required 38 states had ratified it. Former Attorney General, Bill Barr, upheld that original deadline in a memo, which supporters (and hundreds of constitutional scholars) argue is invalid.
“But no matter how many wrenches, we’re not going to lose another generation,” Smeal continued. “We want a country where everybody’s full potential is not only realized, but they can’t be discriminated against.”
In fact, The ERA Project at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, a law and policy think tank, has already been established to develop academically rigorous research, policy papers, expert guidance, and strategic leadership on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, and on the role of the ERA in advancing the larger cause of gender-based justice.
So although this celebration rally was supposed to be a tee-off day enabling Ellie and the others to finally stop marching and take a much-deserved load-off, they instead darned their marching shoes on a trip to the Department of Justice. This time, they were dropping off a petition of 80,000 signatures urging the current Attorney General, Merrick B. Garland, to rescind Bill Barr’s Memo, freeing up the Archivist to finally publish the ERA in the Constitution. Because, as Ellie said, “Let’s face it. We have won.”
In this second chapter, we meet the three young women who inspired this series.
CHAPTER 2: Summer, Izzy and Shilla
“Actually, as a black woman in the US, no matter how much they want to say, ‘oh, yeah, you have rights,’ you don’t really exactly have rights. Because at the end of the day, they’re always gonna see you as a woman, as a black woman. So do you really have rights?” – Shilla
One week earlier, and seemingly a world away from the rally in Lafayette Square, I Zoom chatted with three women who were just starting their adult lives. They were three generations removed from some of the speakers at the rally.
Just a year and a half out of college, they are living in Southern California and making choices that will shape everything that happens next. Summer and Izzy are Asian-American, born to immigrant parents. Shillais is a black woman who immigrated from Uganda as a teenager. They, and this conversation, were the inspiration for this series.
They care about the world. Summer had been involved in a group devoted to ending campus sexual assault and has worked as a congressional intern. Between them, they’ve attended the March for Our Lives protest to end gun violence, Black Lives Matter protests, and Stop Asian Hate rallies. When Trump announced the Muslim ban, Summer didn’t hesitate before heading to LAX in protest. They are passionate and informed about issues surrounding reproductive health, women’s and immigrant rights, sexual assault, and equal pay.
I expected our conversation to be a youthful piss-and-vinegar version of the seasoned conviction that was about to be demonstrated at the rally in Lafayette Square by women who’ve been fighting for equality their entire lives. Instead, they’ve done the math about where they fit into the issues they most care about, a calculus that includes an expectation of inequality in all aspects of life. They are shrinking their lives at a time they should be feeling limitless and invincible. Summer is planning to delay having children until she has climbed the ladder as high as she plans to go, figuring in pregnancy and motherhood discrimination. “I’m really worried about not being able to progress in my career, just being viewed differently because I became a parent, versus my male counterparts, who get praised for it.”
Izzy, who works in the film industry, is resigning herself to a lifetime of de rigueur workplace sexual harassment. “They think that, just because they’re helping you, they can get certain things or think it’s appropriate to ask you certain things, even though they might be, like, 20-30 years older than me. But that’s just a part of being a woman in this world. It’s just something we have to get used to.”
Shilla, an actress, has figured into her calculations where she falls on the pay-scale. She makes a diagram with her hands, placing herself at the bottom. “So, like white men, and then white women, then you got women of color. Black women get paid less. So I’m definitely scared about that.”
They all know that last truth so well that it’s woven into their casual banter. “Oh, yeah, like the joke that guys paying for us on dates is reparations for unequal pay,” Summer chimes in. They all laugh in awkward recognition.
“Yeah, I still feel like a second-class citizen,” Izzy responds when I ask, incredulously. “I still see myself as equal to a man, but in terms of the way our system works, I don’t think we are.”
Despite their social awareness, it’s no surprise that they were mostly unaware of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was created to protect women from the kinds of discrimination that is driving their current choices and expectations. While the fight for the ERA was the backbone of the women’s movement of the 70’s and early 80’s (well before these three young women were born) and resulted in many advances and protections for women, there’s been nary a peep until the last few years, when the three final states ratified it.
By contrast, Summer and Izzy cast their first votes in the 2016 election (Shilla was not yet a citizen), and came of age in a climate of Trumpism, gridlock and an increasingly conservative court, which have defined their experience of the world.
While they don’t frame their experiences in terms of lacking “constitutional equality,” during their years at college, Title IX, which guarantees gender equality in educational institutions, was rolled back; the definition of campus sexual assault was narrowed; access to contraception was challenged; abortion access was curtailed; the pay gap widened; and a judge credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women was given a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. And that’s just for starters. These rollbacks occurred because we’ve had to use a “paperclip and band-aid fix,” as Kimberly Peeler-Allen, Board Chair of the ERA Coalition, calls it (watch her full interview below). In place of a constitutional guarantee of equality and full citizenship for all, which creates a constant, we are attempting to create equality through a patchwork of legislation, which is more vulnerable to rollbacks and reversals depending on who is in power. Rights we once took for granted can now be taken away.
For Izzy, the bottom line is, “It’s just kind of like, expect disappointment.Things don’t seem like they’re changing. Once Trump became president, it just felt like we were going backwards, even worse than our parents’ generation. We’re always going back and forth to the same things in America. I just…I don’t know how much longer it’s gonna take to get to the places some other countries are, considering we’re a first world country. We’re still very behind.”
“Yes,” agrees Summer, whose greatest concern is the waning access to reproductive health care. “Trump coming in and showing us we’re not as free as we thought.” She describes friends rushing to get IUDs inserted because they fear the procedure will soon become inaccessible to them, and also fear forced parenthood should an unwanted pregnancy occur.
Izzy recalls a friend who’d confided, “It was a very serious conversation of having to get long term birth control and using these resources while she could, versus when my friends were in high school and it was easily accessible for them. Even being 15 or 16, they had laws under Obama that protected them.”
“I feel more angry than afraid,” adds Shilla, who had been quiet for several minutes. “It just makes me angry that these men are the ones in the leadership positions, and they’re using their power to take away the power that women have worked so hard over the years to gain. And they’re using their platform to just, I guess….” She takes a minute to collect herself. “I feel like, it’s toxic masculinity. That just pisses me off. You know? Yeah. That’s it.”
I attempted to explain that codifying gender equality in the Constitution through the Equal Rights Amendment could make it harder to roll back the types of laws and protections we had all come to take for granted, but have proved vulnerable in the last few years. They were having none of it, especially Shilla. “Actually, as a black woman in the US, no matter how much they want to say, ‘oh, yeah, you have rights,’ you don’t exactly have rights. Because at the end of the day, they’re always gonna see you as a woman, as a black woman. So do you really have rights? Or is just in writing, but not really in practice? And as an immigrant, too, that’s something else. So I don’t really know if there are any rights, you know, as a person of color.”
I wanted to say something that would help them envision a future where their country, its laws, and their Constitution would have their back, which would encourage them to feel free to follow their dreams in both their personal lives and their careers without playing defense at every turn, and without shrinking themselves before they’d even begun. Simply put, I wanted to paint for them a more empowering vision of the future, and offer a path to get there. And, if I’m being honest, after our conversation, I needed to see that vision too.
Since my own faux-legalese word-salad proved unconvincing, I told them I would talk with some smart people who think about these things all day and every day to, hopefully, gain more satisfying answers. “What would you like me to ask them?” They had only one question between them, summed up by Summer. It was more like skepticism in the form of a question, but I decided to go with it anyway:
“How does that even work, after putting it in the Constitution? You might say we have this, but do we really? It doesn’t mean, as soon as this goes into effect, sexism is going to disappear, you know? How will it be enforced? And how long will it take?”
Kimberly Peeler-Allen, Board Chair of the ERA Coalition, provides some answers below:
About the Author: Rachel Leventhal is an award-winning documentary journalist focusing on stories about women’s leadership and empowerment, frequently collaborating with women and girls to tell their own stories using their own voices. Examples of Rachel’s projects include: a long-term multimedia collaboration with women caught in the US criminal justice system, restavecs (girl-child slaves) in Haiti for NPR, photo essays and audio features documenting grassroots women in Liberia and across West Africa, who mobilized across borders to stop the civil wars in the region and elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first woman president. She is also the founder of Women’s P2P Network, an organization that leverages technology to help women connect and organize across borders in support of justice movements and women’s political leadership.
ABOUT THE SY SYMS JOURNALISTIC EXCELLENCE PROGRAM:
The Sy Syms Journalistic Excellence program at Women’s eNews launched was launched in 2014 with support from the Sy Syms Foundation. The fellowship provides support and development opportunities for editorial interns in the pursuit of journalistic excellence. “For a democracy to flourish all voices must be heard.” said Marcy Syms, a founding Trustee and President of the Sy Syms Foundation. “Through its investigative reporting Women’s eNews gets at the essence of good journalism. The Sy Syms Foundation is proud of this collaboration to support today’s newest women journalists.” The Sy Syms Foundation has been supporting progress in education, science and the arts since 1885. As part of it’s mission to create social change for women and girls through investigative reporting, Women’s eNews helps foster, train, and support the career development of new journalists with a focus on social justice and women’s rights.