“Make no mistake—here is the closest we’ve ever been to seeing full equality recognized and equal rights in the Constitution.”
The Senate on Thursday had its first vote on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 40 years.
Republican opposition meant that S.J. Res. 4, which would declare the ERA ratified and valid, failed to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to bring it to the floor for debate and a vote. Polls that show 83 percent of Americans believe the ERA should be incorporated into the U.S. Constitution (including 90 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds).
S.J. Res. 4 would declare the ERA, “which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, was ratified by three-fourths of the states, and is therefore a valid constitutional amendment, regardless of any time limit that was in the original proposal.” (The ERA has satisfied all Article V requirements to amend the Constitution: a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate, achieved in 1971 and 1972, and ratification by three-fourths of the states, after Virginia became the 38th and final state in January of 2020.)
“The resolution is simple,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It removes the arbitrary deadline for state ratification of the ERA that was imposed in the 1970s. … That is why the Senate today should vote in favor of advancing this ERA resolution, so we can bring our nation one step closer to greater justice, greater equality, and a more perfect union. Let that great march towards equality take the next bold step today.”
Ultimately, 51 senators voted for and 47 against the motion, with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) joining all Democrats in support of the resolution.
Despite his support for the ERA, Schumer voted “no” on the resolution, explaining that by doing so he would enable the chamber to go back and reconsider the resolution. “This issue is too important, and we’re not giving up,” he said, entering a motion to reconsider at a later date.
The ERA has been bipartisan since its inception, and today the amendment still enjoys wide support among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
“Some have suggested that the ERA is no longer needed,” said Murkowski in a Senate speech ahead of the vote. “We’ve certainly made great strides as women since 1923”—referencing the year the amendment was first drafted and introduced in Congress. “But there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
Even still, ERA advocates sought a vote on the resolution as a worthwhile endeavor, since it forced senators to go on the record.
In a press conference immediately following the vote, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) described what it was like to witness the vote. “It was very demoralizing to learn that there were colleagues who did not even deem this issue worthy of debate,” she said. “It was incredibly hurtful to see those colleagues come in to vote today and defiantly put their thumbs down, as if they were not birthed by women and don’t have women in their own families or daughters that they are raising.”
“I wish that I could say I’m disappointed,” she continued. “But in order to be disappointed, I would have to be surprised.”
A 100-Year Fight—And Counting—for the ERA
The fight for the ERA began 100 years ago. But since the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections last summer, the push for ERA passage took on a new urgency as an avenue for shoring up women’s rights, especially reproductive rights. “Abortion barriers deprive women of bodily autonomy and control over the timing of childbearing, and predictably exacerbate the inequalities in educational, economic and political life caused by childbearing and childrearing,” wrote Carrie Baker in Ms. “An ERA could provide a new basis for abortion rights in the United States.”
In a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, Schumer reminded his colleagues that “over a dozen states have near total abortion bans, and millions of people have to travel hundreds of miles just to access reproductive care. That is sickening.”
The ERA would also serve as a bulwark against the pay gap and could help to close pay disparities between men and women. Women of color feel these differences most severely.
The ERA also represents an opportunity to protect survivors of gender-based violence, particularly physical violence by an intimate partner, which nearly one in three women have experienced, including over half of multiracial and Native American women and more than four in 10 Black women.
Law professor Victoria F. Nourse also said there’s a direct throughline between ERA passage and sexual violence prevention. “The ERA would spark Congress to enact new laws on gender violence, including redrafting the VAWA civil rights remedy, and chart a path to overturn [United States v. Morrison],” she wrote in Ms.
Pressley addressed these issues at the press conference Thursday. “I would venture to guess that you have grown tired and weary of our statistics of all the disparate treatment that women experience in this country,” she said. “Imagine how tired we are of living them.”
Despite the outcome of Thursday’s vote, advocates expressed determination, noting that in many ways the ERA is closer to passage than ever before.
“Let’s be clear: The Equal Rights Amendment didn’t fall short today. Democracy did,” said Zakiya Thomas, president of the ERA Coalition. “Make no mistake—here is the closest we’ve ever been to seeing full equality recognized and equal rights in the Constitution.”
Supportive legislators were resolute. “One thing about those of us who fight for equal opportunity, equal rights, gender protections, all of that, is that we don’t give up, we don’t give in,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Take Action on the ERA
This is not the end of the fight for final ratification of the ERA.
Just this week, ERA advocates announced a nationwide petition for the public to pledge their support of the ERA. Leaders of the drive for the ERA—including former Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms., and Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation—are urging supporters to sign to show Congress the overwhelming support by the public of the amendment.
“We intend to make this the biggest, most massive petition drive in the United States,” said Smeal. “The ERA has been ratified.”
Add your name to the petition here.
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