Last week, over a late-night dinner of take-out food and inspiring personal stories, I had a strategy session in my crowded kitchen with two truly remarkable women; Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority and Lilly Ledbetter of Alabama. We were talking about how to achieve what some think is impossible, but what most say is a necessity if we want to achieve true equality in this country: Passing the Equal Rights Amendment and putting real equality for women into the Constitution for the first time.
The proposal that men and women should be treated equally under the law is hardly a controversial concept. A few years back, a survey found that nine out of every 10 Americans, both men and women, believe the Constitution should state that male and female citizens are entitled to equal rights.
That same survey also found that most Americans believe women already have the same rights as men under our Constitution. But sadly they are mistaken. While men's rights are guaranteed by specific language in the Constitution, women's equal rights aren't mentioned.
And conservative Supreme Court Justice Scalia has stated in an interview that in his view, because the Constitution does not explicitly mention a prohibition on sex-based discrimination, such discrimination is not unconstitutional.
So, as things stand now, women's equal rights are secured only at the whim of Congress, state legislatures and the courts. And the direction that those politically controlled winds can blow has been shown to be quite fickle.
That night in my kitchen, Ellie Smeal pointed out one of the effects that separate and unequal treatment was having right now, on women in the military. Women serving in the military who are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan may be exposed to the same dangers and bear the same hardships as their male counterparts, but they do not earn the same career opportunities as men. They are not allowed to rotate through combat command positions. And this means that they will forever find themselves limited in their opportunity to advance and to serve their country.
Lilly Ledbetter is a great example of how gender-based discrimination can impact a woman over her entire lifetime. Lilly was a working mom in Alabama, helping to support her family. After working 19 years as a manager at Goodyear Tire and Rubber, an anonymous tip led her to discover that, while she was paid $3,727 per month, the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, and the highest paid got $5,236 month. It was pretty clear on the face of it that Lilly was being discriminated against. And there are lots of Lilly's still out there.
According to a report by the Joint Economic Committee, on which I serve, lower earnings over a woman's career "can result in smaller private savings to draw upon in retirement, smaller contributions to employer‐sponsored retirement plans, smaller Social Security benefits, and smaller paychecks for those women who continue to work later in life."
That is one of the reasons why in January of 2009, the very first bill signed into law by newly elected President Obama, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. But it's time to stop fighting discrimination against women piecemeal, one small skirmish at a time. It's time to make equality for women not just a nice slogan, but a reality.
That is why at a recent press conference I announced that I will be introducing a bill in the House to make the ERA part of the Constitution. My colleague, Senator Robert Menendez will introduce it in the Senate. And with that we will have a real beginning.
I encourage you to be a part of it. Begin by signing my on-line petition telling Speaker Boehner and his Republican colleagues in Congress that Women Matter. And then let's pass the ERA, so at long last the Constitution will declare that women matter -- and they matter equally.
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