Inside the “Long Overdue” Congressional Hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment

Feminist lawmakers, activists scholars and experts came together Monday for a momentous occasion: to speak out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) within the chambers of the House Judiciary Committee. The two-hour hearing marked the first time in over three decades that the ERA was discussed and debated at an official Congressional hearing.

The “extraordinary attendance” at the hearing, noted House Judiciary Subcommittee Chair Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), “demonstrates that the march toward equality is alive and well.” The audience, many of whom wore “suffragist white,” filled the room from wall to wall—with outspoken actor Alyssa Milano joining state and national leaders in the front row like ERA Coalition Co-President and CEO Carol Jenkins and Co-Founder and Co-President Jessica Neuwirth, NOW President Toni Van Pelt and Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal.

Two panels delivered testimony at the hearing. The Congressional champions of the ERA—Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Carloyn Maloney (D-New York)—spoke first.

Speier’s ERA legislation, HJ Res. 38, removes the arbitrary deadline placed on ERA ratification, and was the focus of the hearing. “We’re just one state shy of the 38 states needed for ratification,” she reminded her colleagues at the hearing. “The deadline in the original Constitutional Amendment was arbitrary, reflecting Congress’ view at a specific time. Congress is fully within its rights to adopt a new deadline, as it has in the past, or to remove it altogether. Notably, the original deadline was not even part of the text states voted on when they ratified the ERA.”

Maloney’s HJ Res. 35 takes a different approach, restarting the ERA ratification process clearing the slate in order to pass it back to the states. But ultimately, the two bills are sisters in their cause: guaranteeing women’s equality under the constitution. “By having both my bill to restart the process, and [Speier’s] bill to extend the deadline on the original process,” Maloney explained, “we’re covering all of our bases.”

Maloney ended her impassioned testimony with a rally cry: “Women are not waiting anymore,” she declared. “We demand what is right—full equality, now. We demand that it be spelled out in the Constitution, and you know how to spell it: E-R-A Now!”

ERA experts, movement leaders and celebrity supporters then took the dais. “The absence of language that women are equal to men in our Constitution,” constitutional law expert Kathleen Sullivan declared in the second panel, “is unfathomable.” She also took aim at opponents of Speier’s efforts to scrap the deadline imposed on the ERA by Congress. “Nothing in Article 5 sets a limit on the time for ratification,” she reminded the room. “The 27th amendment took over 200 years to ratify. Congress has power to remove any impediment to ratification.”

Former Nevada State Senator Pat Spearman, who championed the ERA in her state and successfully steered it toward ratification in 2017, touched on the significance the law has to her as a woman living at the intersections. “I am a woman, I am African-American, and I am a member of the LGBTQ community,” she declared. “The discussion of equality is one I’ve been in all of my life, and it has been contentious. We’re not talking about special rights here. We’re talking about equal rights.”

Spearman also urged the rest of the nation to follow Nevada’s lead. “Now is the time to show the global neighborhood that we, as Americans, when it comes to equality, lead for all,” Spearman implored.

Award-winning actor Patricia Arquette closed out the remarks with a stunning and powerful speech on the urgency of the ERA. “I come here not as a constitutional lawyer but as a citizen, as an American woman to advocate for what I feel is critical for our country,” she declared. “I come with goodwill and the faith that when we examine the reality of American women today and remember the historic injustices women have faced in our country, we will all feel compelled to do what we must to ensure that women are afforded every legal right and equal protection in our country.”

Arquette, who also noted that 179 countries have explicit protections for women in their constitutions on Twitter that afternoon, noted that the ERA was long overdue. “I hope by now we are all ready to make women’s equality a bedrock American value and enshrine it in the U.S. Constitution,” Arquette added. “I hope we’re ready for all our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends to have full equal rights.”

Although the ERA’s champions gathered that day in the House were celebrating the historic nature of the hearing, they also made space to observe, acknowledge and lament how long it had taken for them to get there. “It should send chills down the spine of each and every one one of us that discrimination is not yet prevented against women in the Constitution of the United States,” Speier declared. “We need the ERA so that we can join the rest of the industrialized countries of the world—and not be bringing up the rear, as we are presently doing. We need the ERA so that we can achieve our full economic and social potential. We will no longer allow ourselves to be an afterthought. We need the ERA now.”

During a press conference after the official hearing, supporters of the bill continued to speak out—including Feminist Majority Foundation president and publisher of Ms., Eleanor Smeal, who was an architect of the original campaign to ratify the ERA and remains on the forefront of efforts today. (Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation are both urging members to reach out to their Representative and Senators about the ERA.)

“I’ve been on this trail for 48 years,” Smeal declared during the hearing on Twitter. “I don’t think we have to stop at 38 states! Feminist Majority has a big ratification campaign in Virginia, but the ERA is also gaining momentum in Arizona and North Carolina and Louisiana.”

She ended the post with three words of encouragement defining the current moment in the push for an ERA: “Let’s do this!”

Click here to watch the hearing. Click here to watch the full press conference.

About

Roxy Szal is a former editorial intern at Ms. After four years of teaching English to Texas middle-schoolers, she earned a Masters in Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her graduate capstone project eventually grew into a misogyny in the media watchdog project called How Not to be Sexist.  She is now a freelance writer and editor. Follow Roxy on Twitter: @roxyszal