Who’s afraid of the ERA?

iwdlogo4.jpgToday is International Women’s Day, a day when we are supposed to celebrate women and encourage them to reach their full potential.

It extraordinarily difficult to reach one’s full potential when one is systematically discriminated against, of course, and I can only suspect it is for that reason that reason Taking Place is calling on bloggers to “blog against sexism” today.

Thinking about institutional sexism in the United States, the first thing that occurred to me was the inability of our country to pass the ERA.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (ERA) was first introduced to Congress in 1923. It failed. It was introduced into every session of Congress between that year and 1972, when it finally passed and then was sent to the states for ratification. It took nearly 50 years to be passed by both houses of Congress. Then, even with a three year extension it could not get ratified by enough states. It fell 3 short. Since 1982, when it failed to be ratified, it has been introduced into each session of Congress and has not been passed again.

It must be pretty damned controversial.

You’d it requires universal child care of health care. You’d think it requires companies to pay women and men equally. (No, that was the Equal Pay Act.) You’d think it requires unpaid work in the home to count toward social security pensions, or to be otherwise recognized as real work.

You’d think it mandates equal representation in Congress or something.

But it doesn’t do anything so radical as that. It’s a very simple, very basic statement that men and women are equal under the law. Here’s the text:

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.

Really. That’s all it is. How controversial is that? What would cause a Senator or Representative to vote against that?

Some have argued that equality between men and women has already been legislated: The Equal Pay Act forbids wage discrimination based on sex. Title IX requires that equal resources be given to men’s and women’s sports programs in schools. Women can vote, can own property, can run for and hold political office. Men can take “Family and Medical Leave Act” time. (Up to 12 weeks, unpaid – how generous!). Isn’t this enough? Why amend the Constitution to do what has already been done in legislation?

Simple: Because legislation can be undone. While a constitutional amendment can also be undone, it is much more difficult. As the folks at EqualRightsAmendment.org point out:

“Would anyone really want to turn back the clock on women’s advancement? Ask the members of Congress who have tried to cripple Title IX, which requires equal opportunity in education; who have opposed the Violence Against Women Act, the Fair Pensions Act, and the Paycheck Fairness Act; who voted to pay for Viagra for servicemen but oppose funding for family planning and contraception; who for over a decade have blocked U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).”

I know it isn’t especially fashionable to talk about the ERA, but I think it’s pretty incredible that a nation that claims its place as the foremost democracy in the world has not figured out a way to work equality between men and women into the document that defines its most deeply held governing principles. There are a lot of concrete problems that women face, in the US and in the world. These problems are easier to work on when there is a collectively held belief that women and men are equal.

A single but important example: take violence against women. Violence is a tool that is used to keep women subordinate, to make them afraid, and to prevent them from taking their places beside men as equals. (Homicide is the leading cause of death of pregnant women in the United States, and the second leading cause of death among young women, the first being accidents.) Amending the Constitution to insure equal rights for women would not end violence, but it would make a symbolic statement and a real legal platform from which to begin chipping away at the institutional sexism that still seeps through our culture, and that continues to make women targets of violence.

And isn’t that institutional sexism one reason that the ERA is so hard to pass in the first place? Remember, it took nearly 50 years from when it was first introduced in 1923 to be passed by Congress, and then over the course of 10 years it couldn’t manage to be ratified by enough states to become the law of the land. It has been introduced into every session of congress since then, and has never again passed a congressional vote so it could be sent to the states.

What are we afraid of? What is this about? Look back at the language of the amendment.

Is it really so frightening? Is it really so unimaginable?

Apparently so.

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Filed under activism, Blog Against Sexism, culture, feminism, Gender, life, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexism

6 responses to “Who’s afraid of the ERA?

  1. Pingback: A Conflation Of Some Magnitude « UDreamOfJanie

  2. This is a great post about the ERA. It might not be fashionable to talk about the ERA, but it is pretty pathetic that this country is (still) having such a hard time getting it passed. I’ve lobbied for the ERA in Florida, and it is depressing (while at the same time empowering to be surrounded by other women also lobbying for the ERA). Far too many officialts consider it “outdated.” And that’s exactly why you should blog about it! So thanks for posting.

  3. Thanks Megan! I’d love to know more about your lobbying experience, the kinds of resistance you encountered and the inspiration you took from the other activists. Feel free to share more in the comments here if you’re interested and willing. Or, would you consider doing a guest post about it? Just a thought.

  4. this post kicks ass – y0u do a fantastic job of laying the issue out and writing about it in an accessable way …I loved this!

  5. Awesome job of stripping away the bull and getting right down to the heart of the matter…

    …as usual, Elizabeth.

    SITPS is absolutely one of the best discoveries I have ever made in the blogoverse, and this post is a prime example of why I feel that way.

    (Sorry if I come across as fawning and gushing a bit , but well… if the shoe fits… 🙂 )

  6. You point out that the tacit institutional sexism that permeates our government gives a subtle green light to those who would use violence against women. But I suggest this is a symptom, not the problem. We also have institutional racism which, though never mentioned in polite company, has kept Black and Hispanic Americans from positions of power in government and industry today. The physical and intellectual decline of public schools reflects the fact that the children of the middle and working classes aren’t expected to do much for themselves in this life. And the expansion of the military’s role as a tool of international diplomacy reveals that we don’t even want other countries to get above their current station.

    Simply put, women in America, like Blacks, Hispanics, and the poor, are largely powerless today, and there is an influential minority that would like to keep it that way. And though I dread the consequences if I say it out loud, I have to suggest that there are people who want violence against women to continue. After all, if women and men are fighting against each other, they are unlikely to join forces against the minority that keeps them powerless. That, I fear, is why our largely white, largely male Congress can’t organize to pass this amendment, or any other action that would resist the subtle inequities of our modern society.