08/26/2014 09:51 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

A Woman's Place Is in the Constitution


Every year on this day, we celebrate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote in the United States. With the right to vote, women gained one of the most important responsibilities and privileges a democracy can bestow. Thankfully we've used it and become a powerhouse in elections across the country. Since 1980, the proportion of eligible women who voted in presidential elections has exceeded the number of eligible men who voted. There's women power at its best.

Women's Equality Day, however, is as much an opportunity to recognize past achievements in the women's movement as it is to look at the work we have left to achieve gender equality in this country. Universal suffrage was an essential step, and yet almost a century later we still don't have full equality in educational institutions, in the workplace, on the battlefield, and in our personal health care decisions.

As I reflect upon recent Supreme Court decisions and listen to the harsh rhetoric that is rampant in our political system, it is clear that women are caught in a cruel game of moving one step forward to be pushed two steps back. Ninety-four years after securing the right to vote, it is time for another constitutional revolution for women. It is time for a renewed commitment to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

We have seen a disappointing picture of what can happen because women are not acknowledged in the Constitution. Pay discrimination across sectors has resulted in women earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man doing similar work. Compounded over her career, this pay gap has disastrous consequences on a woman's retirement savings and Social Security benefits. The pay gap means older women are more vulnerable to falling into poverty.

We have seen that legislative protections are not guarantees. They are weak in the face of challenges when the protections are not enshrined by the Constitution. Women need their rights to be explicit and unmistakable.

The Hobby Lobby decision this summer was a shocking reminder that a woman's autonomy is not the same as a man's. Access to contraception was a keystone of the Affordable Care Act, but the strength of that mandate has been eroded by legal challenges, resulting in less access and greater financial burden. Women's rights -- even those we believe are well-established by law -- are in jeopardy when the Constitution is silent about them.

Alice Paul, the great suffragist and the author of the original ERA, once said, "I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me, there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality." And yet after decades of efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment declaring the rights of women in this country, "ordinary equality" still eludes us.

Last year, House Democrats launched the "When Women Succeed, America Succeeds" initiative to bring greater attention to the persistent inequalities in our society. Study after study shows that women's equality is not simply a women's issue. The gender wage gap, pregnancy discrimination, paid family leave, and reproductive choice affect both women and their families. Addressing these injustices and ensuring gender equality will allow families to maximize household income and make decisions about what works best for themselves and their children. And helping American families, benefits the nation as a whole.

This Women's Equality Day let's urge our leaders to take a giant step toward gender equality and fairness. It's time to pass the ERA so that next year, we can celebrate the next great constitutional achievement for women.