August 26 is Women's Equality Day. Most Americans don't even know what it is. Aside from commemorations by a few female leaders on Capitol Hill, the day is hardly noticed. But it marks one of the most important accomplishments of the last century for women -- the date the final state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920 - and women were granted the vote.
That year also marked what suffragists of the time thought would soon be another constitutional milestone, the Equal Rights Amendment. With their newfound franchise, women believed they could convince legislators to put women on equal footing in the constitution with men (white men from the beginning, black men since passage of the 14th amendment in 1868). The ERA was penned by Alice Paul, the suffragist jailed for picketing the White House who nearly starved in Occaquan prison outside Washington.
But it was not to be. Here we are, 91 years later -- a lifetime in anyone's book -- and women still haven't achieved equal constitutional status. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA was not passed and sent to the states for ratification until 1972, with an artificial time limit of only seven years for approval by the states. In that brief time it was ratified by 35 states, but was stopped three states short by millions of corporate dollars backing Phyllis Schlafly's anti-woman storm troopers, who feared unisex toilets more than they valued freedom from discrimination.
Most U.S. citizens don't remember that fight, and many believe the ERA was ratified. The reality is that the legal rights women currently enjoy are not rooted in the constitution, but in a series of statutes like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Executive Orders like affirmative action, and various rules interpreting laws such as Title IX, guaranteeing equal educational opportunity. Because we don't have an ERA, depending on their origin, all of these can be revoked in the dead of night by any simple majority of Congress, bureaucrats in a hostile administration, or the President himself.
George W. Bush and company knew this very well. With the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the assaults on women's employment rights and legal abortions began in earnest. The Court upheld the first federal abortion ban since Roe v. Wade, severely limited redress for illegal pay practices (until Congress passed a new law), and most recently all but outlawed class action suits by ruling in favor of Walmart against women experiencing discrimination at work.
Recently renamed the Women's Equality Amendment by its chief sponsor, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the ERA is the essence of brevity: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." That's the whole thing. A simple concept that had the blessing of both political parties until the Republicans struck it from their platform in 1980.
It's high time the ERA was put back in the center of public debate, and the long 2012 election season that's already underway is the perfect opportunity. So far, Republican candidates are following in W's footsteps. They're talking not only about further limiting younger women's reproductive rights, but taking away the supports the majority of women depend on in old age -- Social Security and Medicare. President Obama is not going that far, but he's also far from championing the rights of women outright. He got the majority of our votes last time, but can he take us for granted now, with so many out of work and at the back of the unemployment lines?
Office seekers not remembering the voting rights we're celebrating on the 26th do so at their peril. Women are now the majority of the electorate, and can control any election. Close to 80% of the public, both female and male, favor an Equal Rights Amendment. Candidates of both parties for the Congress and the presidency ought to be listening.
Equality Day? Not yet. Ask your candidate why.
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