Women from across the state of Nevada converged on Carson City on March 20 to lobby their lawmakers, who made history by voting to become the 36th state to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment—almost 45 years to the day that Congress approved the amendment. Some of those in attendance had not yet been born. Others, like former Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner, worked on ERA ratification decades before. “It’s never too late to support equality,” said chief sponsor of the measure state Sen. Pat Spearman.
If we needed any reminder of why the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution continues to be crucially important, the election of Donald Trump—and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court—should do the trick. “We have somebody [Trump] who outright disrespects women,” says Spearman, the second-term North Las Vegas legislator. An African American woman and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Military Police Corps, she was the first openly lesbian member of the Nevada Legislature.
The ERA that Congress approved in 1972 states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Only 35 states ratified the ERA before the June 30, 1982, deadline set by Congress, three states short of the 38 required to make it part of the Constitution. But the Congressional Research Service experts have stated that the deadline can be extended, and Congress has already voted once to push back the deadline from 1979 to 1982.
In Nevada, the November 2016 elections set the stage for the state’s groundbreaking vote for equality. Nevada voters flipped the Legislature from Republican to Democratic and elected a record number of women, including women of color. Between 2016 and 2017, the percentage of women in the state Legislature climbed 8 percent, the biggest in- crease of any state. The Nevada Legislature now has almost 40 percent women, second only to Vermont. In addition, more than 14 percent of state legislators in Nevada are women of color, giving Nevada the fourth-highest representation of any state legislature. Nevada also elected the U.S. Senate’s first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Democrats picked up two U.S. House seats out of Nevada. Rep. Jacky Rosen replaced incumbent Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who left the U.S. House to run unsuccessfully against Masto for retiring Sen. Harry Reid’s seat.
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According to Marlene Lockard of the Nevada Women’s Lobby, this success was due in part to Emerge Nevada, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, and to years of on-the-ground organizing to build the Democratic Party in the state led by Reid. The ERA success was also due to a multiyear, grassroots effort by the Nevada Women’s Lobby, The Nevada Coalition for Women’s Equity, National Organization for Women, Battle Born Progress, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Service Employees International Union—whose former director for culinary workers, Yvanna Cancela, had recently joined the ranks of the state Senate and helped push ERA ratification over the finish line.
ERA activists must still win ratification in two more states, and women’s groups have set their sights on Illinois, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Just this past April, hundreds gathered for the Illinois March on Springfield. One of their demands: ratify the ERA. In 2014, the state Senate passed the ERA with a strong 39–11 vote and it’s considering ratification once again this year with state Sen. Heather Steans heading the effort.
Activists in California championed the cause during the Feminist Majority’s Rally and Walk for Equality in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, California, and at a sister march organized by the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee. High school and college students joined seasoned activists and organizational leaders. Rally speakers included Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of an ERA resolution in the U.S. House, and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).
“With the ERA, women and girls would at least have a bedrock princi- ple of equality in the highest law of the land that no one could deny and that no one could take away,” said Katherine Spillar, Feminist Majority executive director and Ms. executive editor, speaking at the Silicon Valley rally. “Not state legislatures. Not the Congress. Not the president and not the Supreme Court.”
The threat to women’s rights and sex equality from the Supreme Court has only intensified with the confirmation of Gorsuch. Constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky describes Gorsuch as an originalist akin to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who repeatedly stated that the Constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination. The adoption of originalism by a majority of the court would mean an end to constitutional protection for marriage equality, contraception and abortion, and “no longer would women be protected from discrimination under equal protection,” Chemerinsky concludes.
Gorsuch is now the fifth conservative vote on the court—and Trump may yet get more appointments—making passage of the ERA imperative to stop further erosion of women’s rights. The ERA is also a potent tool to combat the many inequalities still remaining: sex discrimination in insurance pricing and benefits, in pay, hiring, promotions and firing; gender-based violence; barriers to reproductive health care; and women’s lack of political representation.
In February, Rep. Speier introduced a joint resolution with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that would restart the ratification clock. At the same time, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced resolutions to move forward with a new Equal Rights Amendment if Congress does not rescind the deadline. Rep. Maloney’s ERA contains one important change. To Section 1 of the amendment it adds: “Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” If passed and ratified, this will be the first time the word women appears in the U.S. Constitution. Not even the 19th Amendment, which prohibits denial of the right to vote based on sex, mentions that key word.
Women’s rights activists are not merely waiting for a federal constitutional amendment. In 2014, as a result of grassroots efforts led by VoteERA founder Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, Oregon became the 23rd state to incorporate an equal rights amendment into its state constitution. Now, grassroots activists in Maine are gearing up to become the 24th state. ERA Maine, launched in 2016, is working to mobilize citizens in advance of a state House vote.
“It’s so… important to get this job done,” Nevada state Sen. Spearman reminds us. “Because women have got to have a recourse. We are equal… but it’s not codified in the Constitution.”