August 26 is a day proclaimed each year by the U.S. presidents -- Democrat and Republican alike -- as Women's Equality Day. It commemorates the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote on an equal basis with men in 1920. But voting did not carry with it equal rights with men in the U.S. Constitution.
The 20th century push by feminists and women's groups for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) -- from 1972 to 1982 -- fell three states short of the number needed for ratification before an arbitrary time limit ran out.
Though the ERA has been introduced in every Congress since it failed, it has never again been sent to the states for ratification. But Congressional champions have not given up -- at the forefront of the fight is Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York.
Maloney most recently hit the news when she asked: "Where are the women?" before walking out of a Congressional hearing on contraception coverage that featured an all-male panel of religious leaders. I talked with her this month on my radio show, Equal Time With Martha Burk.
MB: Almost all the countries in Europe, the EU itself, Japan, many countries in Asia, even Afghanistan, have equal rights for women in their constitutions. We first introduced it in 1923 right after we got the vote. Why is it taking us so long?
CM: This year is the 40th anniversary of the ERA being approved by congress, and I can't help but wonder how things might be different today if it had been ratified by the states all those years ago. How attitudes and treatment of women would be so different.
MB: Pollsters don't ask very often about the ERA, but when they do, almost 100% of the people say women and men should have equal rights. But the bad news is that about 3/4 of the people think we already have it. Is it just a matter of public education?
CM: There's still a great amount of resistance to it. There have been many anti-woman actions in this congress. We passed defunding of Planned Parenthood in the House. There was an effort to pass the Blunt amendment that would have outlawed many forms of birth control. Then there was HR538, which was called by many critics the "let the women die act." Would we have had this if women were safely enshrined in the constitution?
MB: There's a bill pending that would negate that arbitrary time limit for ratification that was originally put on the ERA. If that bill passed, it would declare the 35 state ratifications from the 1970s and 80s valid, meaning only three more states would have to ratify. We wouldn't have to start over. Is that a good strategy?
CM: I think anything that raises the rights of women is very important. That "three state strategy" is based on the Madison Amendment that was first introduced in 1789 but not ratified until 1992. We were discriminated against in 1972 when we passed the ERA because it had a deadline for ratification. [Ed Note: in the preamble, not in the amendment itself.]
MB: Some people say we don't need an Equal Rights Amendment. We have enough laws on women's rights -- Title IX, equal credit, pregnancy discrimination and so on.
CM: Sometimes I feel like the little Dutch girl running around trying to stop the wall from falling. We spend so much time trying to hold on to those laws. There are so many efforts to repeal them. It's time to stop fighting piecemeal.
MB: And what about claims that women are already covered under the the 14th amendment [equal protection under the constitution]?
CM: Just last year Justice Scalia stated that women were not protected by the 14th amendment, and if any discrimination cases came to him, he would not vote in support of women. We don't want to be held at the mercy of justices like Scalia.
MB: The political conventions are coming up, and that's where the party platforms are decided. The ERA was in the Republican platform from 1940-1980. Ronald Reagan had it removed because he was against it, and the Republicans have never put it back in. It's been in the Democratic platform since 1944, dropping out only once, in 2004. Will it ever again be in both party platforms?
CM: I certainly hope so. The platforms are the parties' contract with America. The Democrats have been the champions of women.
MB: What about getting the ERA out of congress again, starting over, and sending it to the states for ratification? You have a lot of co-sponsors for that.
CM: It's HR69 in the House. We have 185 sponsors. You need 260 for a supermajority. [Democrats] do not control the schedule, so it is a difficult time for us. It's hard -- but I'm in it for the long haul.