Back in the seventies there was a joke: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah – if you cared about gender equality, you were humorless, man-hating, and most likely, hairy. This caricature was used to dismiss the views of those fighting for equal rights for women.
The ERA – Equal Rights Amendment – remember that? Those eighteen words that seem self-evident: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Well, the ERA never got into the Constitution. Despite all the brouhaha about how far we’ve come as a society in terms of civil rights, we seem to have (in)conveniently forgotten to guarantee equal rights for the 52% female majority in this country.
The ERA was written by suffragist leader Alice Paul in 1923, three years after the 19th Amendment guaranteed women’s right to vote (still the only right constitutionally affirmed as equal for women and men). Congress passed it to the states for ratification in 1972, but it was three states short of the required 38 at a 1982 deadline. It has been reintroduced to Congress every year since with zero action on getting it to a vote.
So what? Why do I care about the ERA? Why should any of us? Let me give you a few reasons why I care, and see if you agree:
1. Without the ERA, we do not practice what we preach. In fact, our entire national identity is made a mockery of by this astounding and widely unknown hypocrisy. If we believe all citizens are created equal, all citizens must be treated equally under the law. It really is that simple. Our democracy must uphold the values the United States of America stands for: equality and justice for all.
2. Women still face a pervasive and seemingly intractable wage gap that affects the ability of the American family, and our communities, to survive and thrive. Wage discrimination — whether it’s a Latina making 53 cents on the white male dollar for full-time year-round work, or a female Ph.D. in engineering being offered a starting salary 15% lower than a male counterpart — is one of the biggest factors in the continued oppression of women. Money is power, and the ERA would have a major positive impact on women’s financial bottom line.
3. Without the ERA, every battle won is merely a battle to be fought again, especially in this current zeitgeist of attacks and rollbacks on women’s rights. Do we really want to be constantly defending what we have already achieved, like Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination in education? I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of playing defense. A constitutional amendment is a guarantee that women’s equal rights are not political chits to be played around with.
4. The United States, a global leader in so many respects, shamefully stands practically alone in refusing to ratify CEDAW, the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. From stoning to genital mutilation, rape and femicide, by ignoring this international treaty, the United States is turning a blind eye to some of the most horrifying repercussions of being female internationally. Justice for women worldwide suffers because the United States fails to act on the need to affirm women’s legal equality both nationally and globally.
In a 2001 Opinion Research Corporation poll, 88% of respondents said the Constitution should affirm that women and men have equal rights. That number rose to 91% in a 2012 Daily Kos/Service Employees International Union survey. The catch – 72% of the 2001 respondents mistakenly believed that the Constitution already guarantees that equality.
When more than half the U.S. population doesn’t have equal rights under the law and three-quarters of them don’t know it, that’s a de facto violation of the majority’s civil rights.
As American women, we find ourselves at the epicenter of the defining civil rights fight of the 21st century. In the War Against Women, the ERA is the most effective weapon we have. It has both teeth and legs; i.e., it’s enforceable and its’ impact ripples outward, across issues and generations. Justice for women may not happen overnight with the ERA, but, as with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it certainly will not happen without it.
So because of all of this – I’m doing a Kickstarter Campaign for a documentary film on women’s rights called “Equal Means Equal.” I’m crossing the country talking to women and men to find the connections among such seemingly divergent issues as the gender pay gap, domestic violence, sexual assault, international women’s rights, health care and reproductive rights.
My premise? That a constitutional guarantee of full legal equality for women is a solution that has the potential to transform the United States and the world.