Fifty Years After Passage, the Equal Rights Amendment Is More Important Than Ever

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Rep. Maloney in June 2018 at an ERA shadow hearing. (Phi Nguyen)

Imagine for a moment that the Equal Rights Amendment had become part of the U.S. Constitution soon after Congress in 1972 sent it to the states for ratification.

Many heartbreaking events would have been prevented, for both women and men. Young women would have the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts. People from all marginalized genders likely would be covered under the ERA in a range of employment, public accommodations, housing and healthcare. Women of color and those with disabilities would have additional protections against discrimination. And fewer older women would be living in poverty.

None of that is true today. The ERA has not been added to the Constitution—even though it passed both houses of Congress by a 9–1 margin in 1972, far more than the needed two-thirds majority.

Instead, women’s rights have been turned back on a number of fronts, including sexual assault rates, as documented by the #MeToo movement; reproductive health policies; employment practices; and more. Women’s paychecks remain smaller than men’s for similar work.  Many more women must take unpaid leave during pregnancy and childbirth or if ill or caring for others. As income averaging or time on a job often determine retirement packages, older women are at the short end of the retirement stick—if they are lucky enough to receive any retirement income at all.

The ERA was first proposed in 1923 to remedy these injustices, but it languished in a sexist era. Only dogged work by Reps. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and other new House members of the 1960s won a joint congressional resolution 50 years ago this month to amend the Constitution—which finally brought the bill to a vote the following March.

The ERA’s language is simple:  

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.  The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Just think how those words might have changed the lives of millions of women in low-paying work, providing opportunities for a better education, paths for higher-paying careers, family policies to help raise children, and relief from holding two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or, think how lives would change if victims of sexual violence could have the right to sue under the Constitution, and about the many brave women who have come forward recently to challenge discrimination and abuse—not just by celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Cuomo and Matt Lauer, but also by countless others.  

Would male perpetrators have behaved differently if societal norms changed enough during their boyhoods to prevent their misogyny? Think how much energy and potential might have blossomed, and how many careers might have turned out differently, especially for the victims who risk their jobs and personal lives by coming forward to report sexual abuse.

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Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) rallying at the steps of the Supreme Court for the Equal Rights Amendment in 2014. (Rep. Maloney / Flickr)

With three states ratifying the ERA in recent years—Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020—the amendment has finally met the three-fourths threshold for adoption. Each state that has ratified in the 21st Century has had Democrats and Republicans alike co-sponsoring the bills and voting for ratification. The amendment has met the requirements laid out in Article V of the U.S. Constitution.  Now, the federal government must validate the ratifications of the three final states.

The will of the people of Nevada, Illinois and Virginia—along with the 35 other states that previously ratified the ERA—must be certified by the executive branch. The final step lies with the archivist of the United States, whose job it is to publish and certify any amendment—yet he hasn’t done so with the ERA. I urge him to do so without further delay.

The ERA has strong majority support and is popular with the public. A recent poll by the Associated Press found that three-quarters of Americans support the ERA; only 4 percent oppose it. Among Democrats, 89 percent support the ERA and only 1 percent oppose it, while Republicans are at 61 percent support and only 9 percent in opposition. Few issues today have such enthusiastic bipartisan approval.

No one wants to return to the days when women were routinely fired for being pregnant; when admission policies kept most women out of law and medical schools, journalism and executive suites; when women could not get credit in their own names; or when they could land only stereotyped roles in films and media.  

But could it happen again?  Over the past five years, there have been reversals in Title IX on education, access to reproductive health, legal decisions on domestic violence and more. Establishing “equality of rights under the law” would prevent further roll-backs for today’s generation and future ones.

Congress should affirm immediately that there can be no time limit on equality. In March, the House passed H.J. Res. 17, which would eliminate the arbitrary time limit for ERA ratification and remove any shadow of uncertainty about the ERA’s validity. A companion measure is pending in the Senate.

Gender equality is not a partisan issue. The ERA is the way to guarantee it, and the time for action is now.

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About

Rep. Carolyn Maloney is the first woman to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District and to represent New York City’s 7th Councilmanic district, where she was the first woman to give birth while in office; she was also the first woman to Chair the Joint Economic Committee and is now the first woman to chair the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. She is also senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee and the former co-chair of the Women's Caucus. Rep. Maloney is the author of Rumors of our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting any Easier and How We Can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters.