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American women won the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. From Mary Church Terrell’s endeavors to make sure African-American women were included in the fight for suffrage, to Margaret Sanger’s work to promote access to birth control, to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s efforts to eliminate sex discrimination women have continued to fight for wider rights.
But the U.S. Constitution does not say men and women are equal.
In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) fell short of the three-quarters majority needed due to opposition by the Republicans to add the ERA to the Constitution.
The equal rights amendment is very simple. It says:
SECTION 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
SECTION 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
SECTION 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The Equal Rights Amendment was written by Alice Paul (1885-1977), the founder of the National Woman’s Party. Paul studied at colleges and universities in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and earned an impressive number of degrees, including a Master’s and doctorate in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, a law degree from Washington College of Law, and law Master’s and doctoral degrees from American University. She joined demonstrations for the British suffragist movement in the early 1900s. On returning to the U.S. in 1910, she pushed American suffragists to try the confrontational techniques she’d seen applied in Britain, including civil disobedience.
In 1913 Paul and Lucy Burns formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which was later reconstituted as the National Woman’s Party and employed more aggressive tactics. The group used parades, petitions, protests and pickets to push for the right to vote.
After women successfully won the right to vote in 1920, the National Woman’s Party turned its attention to getting all the other rights they should have. Women were excluded from the constitution, because they were not considered full citizens who should have the right to vote.
In the 1950s, Michigan Congresswoman and former judge, Martha Griffiths pushed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to double down on its enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She introduced the amendment on the House floor every year, but was unsuccessful until 1970 when the legislation was forced out of committee and passed by the House. The Senate failed to pass it that legislative session and it passed the House on Oct. 12, 1971 and the Senate on March 22, 1972.
Congress set a seven-year deadline for ratification. But anti-feminists mobilized to defeat it. They believed the ERA would do away with much of the special status granted to women, including the right to be supported by their husbands, and would damage the traditional American family. “A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.” They believed the ERA would lead to a future of gender-neutral bathrooms and women being drafted into the military. The deadline for ratification was extended by three years from 1979 to 1982. Still, when that deadline arrived, only 35 states had passed the amendment — three states short of the three-quarters majority required by the Constitution. Congress failed to extend the ERA ratification deadline in 1982.
Two more states have recently ratified the amendment: Nevada on March 21, 2017, and Illinois on May 30, 2018. That means only one more state would be needed to have the amendment meet the threshold for being added to the Constitution. It is believed Virginia will soon become the 38th state to ratify. Many believe it’s possible to get around the deadline because it’s not part of the amendment itself.
Although American women have made significant gains in equality since the 1970s — and certainly since the 1920s — advocates say that an Equal Rights Amendment could still have a profound effect on the law and on American society.
It could strengthen the legal basis for combating violence against women, pay inequality and maternity leave. Passing a constitutional amendment does not automatically invalidate anything. It would provide a basis, potentially, for a lawsuit, and courts will need to decide whether any particular law — whether it’s on abortion or something else — constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex and is invalid under any equal rights amendment.
It is likely that protecting women’s rights in the Constitution would have a major cultural impact. Once you start changing the culture and the dialogue, things that were acceptable become unacceptable really quickly. There’s been a more widespread understanding among both women and men that we have not truly established equality in our culture and the laws that we have enacted are not sufficient to protect against sex discrimination in all avenues.
I needed a sexist joke to go with this story. I found a ripper but my wife stepped in, so this is what you get….offends everyone equally…
A man asks, “God, why did you make woman so beautiful?” God responded, ”So you would love her.” The man asks, “But God, why did you make her so dumb?” God replied, “So she would love you.”