Today 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?