“Completing the Work of Our Foremothers”: The Final Push for the Equal Rights Amendment

“This is the year of the ERA. We’re gonna get it done!” 

This article was updated on January 22 at 2:41 p.m. PST.

“Completing the Work of Our Foremothers”: The Final Push for the Equal Rights Amendment
An ERA demonstration on July 9, 1978. (Bettye Lane / Schlesinger Library)

One of the most important actions that Biden and Harris can take—one that will affect all areas of women’s and girls’ lives—is ensuring that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) becomes part of the U.S. Constitution. “Passing the ERA; let’s start there,” Harris told an audience in Iowa during a campaign event in 2019, when asked what she would do for women in the first 100 days if elected president.

“With [Biden and Harris] in the White House, I’m hopeful that we can finally complete the work our foremothers began a century ago,” said long-time ERA leader Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in a Marie Claire op-ed on Monday.

When the amendment received its 38th state ratification (the final one needed) in January 2020, the Trump administration blocked the archivist from certifying the amendment, and the Department of Justice (then headed by Attorney General Bill Barr) issued an opinion arguing that the final three states’ ratifications were too late and did not count. In response, the attorneys general from those states—Nevada, Virginia and Illinois—filed a lawsuit to force recognition of the amendment.

In February of 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support dissolving the deadline for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (which had been extended once before), but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on the bill in the Senate.

But now, with Democratic control of Congress and the presidency, it’s a new day.

“We have pro-equality White House, a pro-equality Senate, and a pro-equality House of Representatives,” says Carol Jenkins, president and CEO of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality.

“Completing the Work of Our Foremothers”: The Final Push for the Equal Rights Amendment
Rep. Jackie Speier at a town hall in San Mateo, Calif., on May 1, 2013. (Daniel Chee / The Skyline View)

On Thursday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced her bill again in the House with bipartisan support of more than 195 co-signers, including Republican Congressman Tom Reed (N.Y.).

“We are going to do the ERA! These 26 little words belong in the Constitution,” said Speier to ERA supporters at a pre-inauguration party hosted by the ERA Coalition on Tuesday.

On Friday, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced an identical bill in the Senate.

“As we begin a new Congress, I can think of no better legislation to lead with than one that removes impediments to find ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment—an amendment that firmly embeds in law equality between men and women,” said Sen. Murkowski.

“We are making this one of our top priorities!” said Sen. Cardin on Tuesday. “This is the year of the ERA. We’re gonna get it done!” 

Another avenue for recognition of the ERA is for the Biden Justice Department to simply withdraw Barr’s opinion and direct certification of the ERA as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, at last guaranteeing equal rights to women.

“People talk about systemic racism and systemic sexism. It’s my belief that the system is the Constitution and the reason that we continue to have these problems is that we’re dealing with a a playbook that is, in itself, unfair,” Jenkins told Ms. “Until you fix that, you will continue to have problems. Until you do the fundamental work of changing the Constitution and stating that women are full human beings and that there can be no discrimination based on sex, you will always find a way around it.”

Get caught up on Carrie N. Baker’s six-part series examining the half-century fight to add women to the U.S. Constitution.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.