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Yashar Ali Headshot

Is the Equal Rights Amendment for Hippies Like Richard Nixon?

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A few weeks ago, there was a hubbub over Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's decision to sign, "The Marriage Vow," a fourteen-point pledge drafted by Iowa conservative Christian group, The Family Leader.

The controversy over the pledge centers on the fact that signers are asked to oppose same-sex marriage on all levels and to support legislation for making divorce more difficult. "The Marriage Vow" also contains a statement claiming African-American children born into slavery were more likely to be raised by a two-parent household than African-American children growing up in our current era. Due to pressure resulting from the press and media reporting on the pledge, this claim has been removed from the vow.

But a key tenant of this pledge went largely unnoticed: signers of this pledge must also vow to reject "Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control."

I'm not surprised that Congresswoman Bachmann would support such a pledge.  I am also not surprised that a conservative group would include such a tenant in their pledge. There is a historical pattern of Republicans advocating for women's rights in the Middle East.

Since 2001, the Bush administration repeatedly claimed that rights for women in the Middle East was one of their reasons for going and staying in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an interview with Fox News Host, Greta Van Susteren, then President George W. Bush said:

"My concern of course is that the United States gets weary of being in Afghanistan and says 'It's not worth it, let's leave' and Laura and I believe that if that were to happen, women would suffer again. And we don't believe that's in the interest of the United States or the world to create a safe haven for terrorists and stand by and watch women's rights be abused."

But most recently, the Arab Spring, a massive set of revolutions that emerged in early 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and in other countries across the Middle East/North Africa, has brought out a new round of Republicans defending women's rights abroad.

In a speech this year to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Republican House Speaker John Boehner speculated, "Will they [Arab Spring countries] now build governments that respect human life and dignity, that uphold human rights and where the people rule or will we see women repressed and fundamental rights abridged?"

Boehner's support of human rights, especially women's rights, is not an isolated case.

With such purported support from Republicans for women's rights around the globe, why does our own country, 235 years after its founding, still lack an equal rights amendment (ERA) in our constitution -- one that guarantees women and men inalienable access to equality, regardless of gender?

The horrors women face in Afghanistan and in the Middle East, not to mention in countries in Africa and Asia, are ones we can't even begin to imagine. In so many of these countries, the birth of a girl is still treated as an embarrassment and a tragedy. I am not comparing the struggles women face in these countries to the struggles women encounter in the United States. However, I simply don't understand how we can argue for freedom in these countries when we lack the same sort of freedom built into what we know and claim to be the very foundation of our democracy.

Have we become so numb to the discrimination women face in this country to think that we don't need constitutional protection for gender equality? In the past, we have, as a country, made attempts to push for gender equality on the legislative level. This is where the Equal Rights Amendment comes into play. But we have yet to be successful in our efforts to ratify gender equality into our Constitution.

When the ERA passed congress in 1972, it sailed through the house in a 354-23 vote. In the Senate, only 8 out of 100 members voted against it. The ERA succeeded because of overwhelming and passionate support from Republicans.

Today, only one Republican serves as a co-sponsor of the ERA, which has not been able to pass Congress in almost 40 years.

What many people don't know or realize is that the Republican Party was actually the first major political party to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment -- in 1940, no less. The party served as the leading political champion of the ERA until the late 1970's.

In 1968, Richard Nixon, who no one would confuse for a "radical feminist," actually campaigned on his support for the ERA. When he entered office and didn't move swiftly enough on the ERA, women's groups pressured him -- the amendment passed for the first and last time under his administration.

But that's not all. As president, Nixon placed more women in government posts than his Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. He created a Presidential Task Force on Women's Rights. He assigned the Justice Department with the responsibility to focus on sex discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Under his leadership, the Labor Department instituted sex discrimination provisions for its Office of Federal Contract Compliance guidelines.

So, what happened to the Republican Party that championed for women's rights and promoted the ERA with such enthusiasm?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, radicals, led by The Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, hijacked the Republican Party's efforts towards gender equality. Schlafly and her partners developed a following so powerful that she managed to scare "common-sense" Republicans into abandoning the ERA effort.

Anti-woman crusaders like Phyllis Schlafly (a lawyer who benefited from the sacrifice of the very women, "radical feminists," that she vilified) claimed, among other things, that the ERA would enshrine within the US Constitution, a woman's right to "abortion on demand." Ms. Schlafly, take a second to look up the 14th Amendment.

A fear has set in with conservative voters since Roe v. Wade, a threat that people like Ms. Schlafly have successfully propagated. This threat suggests any pro-woman, pro-equal rights law or stance will immediately result in millions of women rushing out to get abortions.

Ms. Schafly's efforts to organize opposition to the ERA didn't end in the 70s and 80s.  In 2007, she led the charge for defeating the newly introduced ERA in congress. In an article published on March 28, 2007 in the Washington Post entitled, "New Drive Afoot to Pass Equal Rights Amendment," Schlafly "...warns lawmakers that its passage would compel courts to approve same-sex marriages and deny Social Security benefits for housewives and widows." Her previous excuse for opposing the ERA, in which she claimed that women would be drafted into the armed forces has, of course, fallen to the wayside

The ERA, which used to be a national movement, one overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and Democrats, is now a shell of its former self. And if it weren't for a small, passionate group of women who continue to spend their life's work championing the ERA, the movement wouldn't exist at all.  When the ERA was re-introduced on June 22, 2011, only 11 news clips in the subsequent week mentioned it.  Procedural bills in Congress, that have little impact on the way we live, get more attention.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring have not only freed people from oppressive regimes and brutal dictators, but they have also ignited a sense of possibility in a region where true democracy has not existed. The importance of the ERA is much the same. While the protections it will offer are ones that women and girls desperately need, the ERA can ignite a revolution of possibility -- a possibility that we are all truly equal, regardless of gender.

It's this sense of possibility that is deeply needed within the consciousness of our young men and women today. The gender gap in schools today is shocking, and it's not something we can sense in test-scores or grades. Rather, it's about the kinds of possibilities boys and girls see for themselves.

In 2008, Scholastic News conducted a survey of more than 30,000 school-aged kids (1st through 8th graders). The primary question in this survey was, "Would you want to be President?" The results were startling: 66 percent of boys said that they wanted to be president, but only 19 percent of girls expressed the same desire.

First through eighth grade is a period of time when kids are initiated into the basics of civics and the inner-workings of our government.  When grade school students learn about the Constitution, they encounter the idea that they can speak or believe what they want. They learn about the Fifteenth Amendment, which states race cannot be a factor in a person's right to vote. They even learn they have the right to bear arms.

However, kids don't learn that they are equal, regardless of gender. This is a problematically missing component in what we teach as our most fundamental document of our nation, the Constitution.

For so many years, the Republican Party unquestionably led the charge towards gender equality, even before Democrats picked up the baton. And today, they are unquestionable champions for women's rights in the Middle East (regardless of their ultimate motivation). Yet, Republicans don't see that an entire nation of women, young girls, and boys in the United States could use our own version of the Arab Spring--a (gender) revolution to be forged in classrooms, in the workplace, in our courts, and at home.

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe couldn't have said it better when she, along with sixteen of her women senator colleagues, led a call to support and praise women in the Middle East and North Africa who were steadfast in their commitment to their rights and the revolutions during the Arab Spring:

"Essential to the success and stability of any government is the equal voice and participation of women...I honor their commitment to ensuring future generations enjoy the guaranteed equality and basic human rights for which they endeavor to this day and remain steadfast in my commitment to these universal liberties."

Republicans, like Senator Snowe, who are so eager to support revolutions in the Middle East/North Africa in the interest of women's rights, should first start one right here at home, by joining Democrats in moving the ERA forward. After all, they took the lead for so many years.

And the best part is, they don't need to appropriate billions of dollars and sacrifice thousands of lives to do it.

All they have to do is say, "aye."

This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.