Reflecting on a Women’s History Month full of both legislative victory and profound tragedy
This letter from the Ms. team originally appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.
In Women’s History Month 2021, we celebrated extraordinary legislative victories for women’s rights—and, at the same time, suffered a profound tragedy.
On March 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to abolish the time limit on equality, clearing the way for the Equal Rights Amendment to join the document where it belongs: the U.S. Constitution. Some 49 years earlier, when the ERA passed both the House and the Senate, a seven-year timeline for ratification was inserted into the amendment’s preamble. It was a maneuver by ERA opponents to keep out of the Constitution the simple declaration: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged … on account of sex.”
In her speech on the floor of the House urging the resolution’s passage, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) took on the opponents of equality while reminding everyone why the ERA must be ratified:
“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.’”
Passage of the ERA resolution marked a victory for several generations of feminists like ourselves and millions of others, who have been marching, lobbying and campaigning for the ERA. (We invite you to go to ERAyes2021.org to add your voice and tell your own ERA story.) Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who introduced the resolution, expressed all our hopes when she declared, “With President [Joe] Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris at the helm, this will finally be the year we ratify the ERA to the Constitution.”
The resolution now moves to the Senate, where Republican opposition threatens its final passage. “In our relentless fight against sex discrimination, today’s action [by the House] puts us a step closer to ensuring the ERA becomes a part of our U.S. Constitution,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “I strongly urge the Senate to pass this joint resolution.”
Later in the day on March 17, a House vote reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill makes a number of vital enhancements to the existing law, including strengthening enforcement of court orders that require convicted abusers to relinquish their firearms, extending protections to immigrant women and transgender women, ensuring Indigenous tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence on tribal lands, and closing the “boyfriend loophole” by prohibiting anyone convicted of dating violence from purchasing a firearm.
The VAWA reauthorization by the House came the day after a murderous rampage in Atlanta left eight people dead—seven of them women, and six of them Asian American women. This mass shooting was not an isolated event: Nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported to the organization Stop AAPI Hate over the past year, and 68 percent of these have targeted Asian American women.
Harris, the first vice president of South Asian descent as well as the first woman to hold the office, reflected on the long history of anti-Asian violence and discrimination in her remarks in Atlanta following the massacre:
“Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism, too.”
Feminists’ goals of ratifying the ERA and ending violence against women are inextricably linked. When VAWA was first passed in 1994, it not only provided funding for survivors’ programs, but also included a section to allow survivors to enter federal court with a civil lawsuit against their abuser and/or any institution that bears responsibility for failure to act following their reports of abuse, such as a law enforcement agency or a college or university. But the Supreme Court struck down the section, finding there was no constitutional basis for the provision and ruling that Congress had exceeded its authority in passing it. The ERA would at last provide the constitutional basis for survivors to seek justice in federal court.
While VAWA and the ERA resolution passed in the House, both face a major obstacle in the Senate, where opponents can wield the filibuster to prevent the bills from coming before the full Senate for a vote absent a supermajority in favor of ending debate. VAWA and the ERA’s uncertain fate underscores the need to change Senate rules so that a minority cannot block what strong majorities of Americans already support.
We urge all Ms. community members to get involved. The Senate must end the filibuster in order to pass the ERA and VAWA—along with other important bills that address voting rights, immigration reform and the climate crisis. And those on our side, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.), must make passage of the ERA and VAWA a priority.
Our message is simple: We will not give up our dream to live in a world without violence and with full equality under the law.
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