The Ms. Must-Read: House Achieves Victories for Gender Equality

Every Friday, Ms. executive editor Kathy Spillar breaks down the week’s biggest stories, offering commentary. This weekly letter from the editor recaps critical developments in U.S. and global feminism—alongside the latest Ms. must-reads—right as they unfold. You can also get The Ms. Must-Read sent directly to your inbox every Saturday morning.


It’s been an extraordinary week of legislative victories for women’s equality—but also one of profound tragedy.

Members of the House Democratic Women’s Caucus gather on the Capitol steps after voting to remove the arbitrary deadline on ERA. (Ike Hayman)

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives advanced two critical measures. On Wednesday, the House passed a resolution removing the arbitrary time limit that was placed by opponents of women’s rights in the preamble of the Equal Rights Amendment, clearing the way for the ERA to finally be placed where it belongs—in the Constitution. Nearly half a century after it was first passed by Congress, this milestone marks a victory for several generations of feminists.  

“There are some who say the Equal Rights Amendment is not needed. To them, I quote the late Justice Antonin Scalia who said, … ‘Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It does not,’” remarked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking on the House floor in support of the resolution to remove the time limit on ERA ratification. 

Celebrating passage, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who introduced the resolution, emphasized the urgency of the ERA: “For those who still question the need for the ERA, they need look no further than the gender wage gap that continues to keep women and families from achieving their full potential, pregnancy discrimination that forces women out of the workforce, persistent and insidious violations of the rights of survivors, and more.”  

“We will not end this fight until President Biden, the father of VAWA, signs this bill,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee during a Wednesday press conference. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Sadly, only four Republicans broke rank and joined House Democratic members in supporting passage, and the resolution now moves to the Senate, where Republican opponents threaten eventual ratification—unless the filibuster rules are changed. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, reminds us of the struggle ahead: “In our relentless fight against sex discrimination, today’s action puts us a step closer to ensuring the ERA becomes a part of our U.S. Constitution. We need to guarantee that women and men are treated equally under the law, and I strongly urge the Senate to pass this joint resolution.” 

A vote later the same day reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The Act makes a number of vital enhancements to the existing law, including: ensuring Indigenous tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence on tribal lands; strengthening enforcement of court orders that require convicted abusers to relinquish their firearms, and extending protections to immigrant women and transgender women. In a provision adamantly opposed by the National Rifle Association, VAWA reauthorization broadens protections from firearm homicide for victims of dating violence. Under current law, only spouses or formerly married partners convicted of stalking or abuse are prevented from purchasing guns. 

The vote on VAWA came the day after the murderous rampage in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them Asian American women. In a statement following the horrific murders, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum reminded us that the Atlanta mass shooting was not an isolated event: “Even before the pandemic and the racist scapegoating that came in its wake, AAPI women routinely experienced racialized misogyny.” According to research by the organization Stop AAPI Hate, 68% of the anti-Asian attacks over the past year have been against women. In a major piece in Ms. this week, the authors explore the connections between violence against women and mass violence: “Perpetrators of mass violence acting from any ideological motivation are virtually always men and tend to have in common histories of abuse or harassment of women.”  

In a fitting conclusion to the week—and coming at the end of the first week of the annual U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York City—we feature Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech to the Commission, in which she emphasizes the connection between democracy and women’s empowerment. And this week’s episode of our podcast, On the Issues with Michele Goodwin, features an extraordinary conversation with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of U.N. Women. I urge you to take the time to read and listen to both. 

Democracy Depends on Women’s Empowerment, Kamala Harris Says in Her U.N. Debut
Vice President Kamala Harris, Feb. 17, 2021, in the White House. In her first speech at the United Nations, on March 16, during the annual women’s conference, held virtually for the most part, she warned that democracy was imperiled everywhere and that strengthening it “depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women.” (Lawrence Jackson / White House)

Looking back over this week, this much I know: Despite the formidable obstacles we face as a movement and the struggles confronting women everywhere, we will not give up our dream of full equality and to live in a world without violence. 

P.S. And don’t miss our series “My ERA Story”—send your ERA story to us at [email protected] or submit at ERAyes2021.org.

About

Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.