“Reports of the ERA’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” (Part 6)

This is the final installment in a six-part series examining the half-century fight to add women to the U.S. Constitution—and a game plan on where we go from here.

Get caught up:


Part 6: Highlights of This Year in the Fight for the ERA

“With COVID-19, we see once again, women are on the frontlines, and we’re still at the back of the line.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) had the zinger of the night during last week’s virtual town hall hosted by the ERA Coalition, with federal and state legislators as well as activists.

Speier, who introduced the House resolution to remove the timeline for ratification of the ERA, also noted, “156 countries around the world already have this in their constitutions.”

“If our rights are in the Constitution, they can’t be erased or rolled back by the changing political whims of legislators, judges or occupants of the White House,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), another leading advocate for the ERA in Congress.

But this year is critical for the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“This is 2020, the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote. We should be seizing on that anniversary to motivate and activate,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Senator who introduced the Senate resolution to remove the timeline.

But during last week’s town hall, she admitted: “The problem is on my side of the aisle.”

This sentiment has been long echoed by Feminist Majority Foundation president (and Ms. publisher) Eleanor Smeal, who for part of the 1970s and ’80s was president of the National Organization for Women, which led the ERA fight. 

“The ERA resolution is being blocked by McConnell and by the leadership of the Republican party. That’s why we have to flip the Senate. It isn’t individual Republicans. I believe if the ERA were put on the Senate floor, we would pass it. The problem is the leadership, and whoever they are beholden to. We must flip the Senate to have leadership that will remove the time line.”

But today, despite resistance from Republicans in Congress and from the Trump administration, public support for the ERA is currently sky-high: The American Bar Association’s (ABA) 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy showed that a wide majority of respondents—83 percent—believe the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) should be ratified and incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. Only 8 percent opposed.

“That’s a powerful statement about what the public believes in,” said ABA president Judy Perry Martinez, for it “tells us is that Americans believe in equal rights for women and they know that until those words are in our Constitution, those equal rights will not in fact be believed and achieved by all.”

But, just like in the initial push for the ERA in the 1970s, opposition from business interests, especially the insurance industry, are ERA enemy number one.

“Reports of the ERA’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” (Part 6)
1979: An ERA demonstration in Florida. (Florida Memory / Flickr)

“‘Women’s equality’ is not just words,” Smeal says. “It means real things, especially in the area of money. It means you have to stop discriminating against women in employment and in annuities, life insurance and health insurance. It involves billions and billions of dollars.”

Of course, earlier this year, under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House of Representatives voted to remove the arbitrary time line for the ERA with a bipartisan 232–183 vote.

“With this resolution, we take a giant step toward equality for women, progress for families and a stronger America—because we know when women succeed, America succeeds,” Pelosi said at a press conference ahead of the vote.

Meaning this fall, all eyes will be on the Senate.

“Women’s equality will be spelled out in the Constitution,” said Maloney. “And we will spell it E-R-A.”


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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.