All the Rage

Can the ERA Pass in Our Lifetime?


After a 36-year battle, we're one state away from ratifying the amendment that would make equal rights the law of the land. What is standing in the way?



In 1982, in the days before the July 1st deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), words of rage and protest were written out in animal blood on the floors of the Illinois State House. When the ERA was finally ratified in Illinois last Wednesday night, it was arguably more dramatic, as it left the U.S. with one last state needed to reach the minimum for full federal ratification.

The Equal Rights Amendment was initially written by Alice Paul in 1923, on the heels of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the Constitutional guarantee that no state could bar women from voting based on gender. This, of course, didn’t prevent most African-American women and Latinx women, and other marginalized groups from being barred from voting for other reasons.  For example, African-American and Latinx men, who had gained the right to vote with the 14th Amendment, still faced poll taxes, “intelligence tests,” threats of violence, and death if they tried to vote. States just couldn’t legally restrict them from voting for being women anymore.

The 19th Amendment had been a corrective to the 14th Amendment, which had specified that only male citizens were guaranteed a right to vote. Now that that specific right was guaranteed to all citizens regardless of sex, Paul wanted an amendment that would make the same kind of guarantee of rights across the board. That the 14th Amendment had been able to restrict one right based on sex left open the possibility that other rights could be threatened as well.

After 1923, the amendment went though some edits. The version we are still using was settled on in 1943 after the Republicans had put passage of an amendment guaranteeing women’s equality in their party platform, and a year before the Democrats did the same.

The main text of that final version reads, 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 version passed the U.S. House and Senate by huge majorities in 1973, and was signed by President Richard M. Nixon. Thirty-eight states needed to ratify for the ERA to make it into the Constitution. For the first time in American history, though, the amendment was given a deadline for getting those ratifications: March 22, 1979.

Thirty states ratified in the next couple of years with great enthusiasm. Then a building public opposition—including a surprising number of women, giving cover to men who opposed it but hadn’t wanted to look anti-woman—started to slow down the momentum. In 1974, only three states ratified; the following year, just one. It was another two years before another state would ratify the ERA. Then the momentum came to a full stop, with just 35 states total ratified as things limped toward the deadline. Advocates made a quick appeal to Congress, and the deadline was extended, but only until July 1, 1982. The very last state to vote before the deadline was Illinois.

It was defeated, and the ERA was widely declared dead. Feminist organizations, already hurting in the Reagan era, realized they would have to continue working toward equality in piecemeal fashion, through individual laws and judicial rulings, as they had already done with Titles IX and X, which outlawed sex-based discrimination in education and health care, respectively.

That doesn’t mean that everyone forgot the ERA. Dedicated souls kept trying to reintroduce the ERA in the state legislatures of unratified states year after year—not surprisingly, they were largely ignored. The torch would be passed to the next generation of women, who began to wonder what had become of that amendment their mothers had marched for, and took up the fight. Gen X and millennial women had the benefit of social media this time around: Facebook pages and groups started springing up, forging connections and bringing new people to the cause over the course of nearly a decade. This network was ready, then, when a million women marched on Washington in January 2017, and suddenly people all over the country who had never been engaged in politics were suddenly paying attention, recognizing that their rights to reproductive health care, equal pay, protection from sexual harassment, even equal employment opportunities—the rights they’d been securing piece by piece since the 1960s—were at critical risk.

Two months after the March, Nevada ratified the ERA, 40 years after any state had done so. We had a ball game again! Things started heating up in the rest of the unratified states. A year after Nevada, in April of this year, Illinois’s State Senate ratified. That brought us to last Wednesday night.

The Senate’s bill ratifying the ERA had already been approved for introduction in Illinois’ House in May, so we’d all been waiting for the introduction to happen. The bill’s author was House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang, and he was carefully timing the introduction so the yes votes would have a majority.

The debate beforehand was lively and tense. Democratic Rep. Mary E. Flowers, an African-American woman representing Illinois’ 31st District in Chicago, was staunchly opposed to ratification, citing primarily a distrust of White feminist motivations and a fear that this amendment would undermine or reverse protections already on the books. Several Republican opponents ceded time to her so she could keep talking, presumably with the hope that she would be more persuasive than they were.

Indeed, the Republican opponents who did speak either repeated false talking points from decades before, or were simply grasping at straws. Their position was that ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment would be merely symbolic and useless, but would also somehow destroy every traditional value we hold sacred. Representative Terri Bryant of the 115th District, for instance, was deeply concerned that the ERA was so powerful it would somehow force her son to stop holding doors open for his great-aunt, yet also so weak it was unnecessary, because she could already stand up for her own rights.

Representatives who supported the ERA came back swinging, combatting the fear-mongering and false narratives, then House Deputy Majority Leader Lang closed the debate with a fiery and compelling speech. He urged his colleagues to remember this was no ordinary vote, this was historic. They had a chance to change the U.S. Constitution.

In the end, there were 72 yes votes—one more than was needed. Finally, 36 years after a crushing defeat, the ERA was ratified in Illinois. A cheer rang up from the floor. History had been made.

It was a lovely and hopeful bookend to the grimmer history that had taken place within those walls in 1982.

On May 18th, seven women began a fast in support of the ERA in the rotunda of the Illinois Capitol building in Springfield so they could be seen by the legislators as they came and went. Sonia Johnson, who had been ex-communicated from the Mormon church for supporting the ERA, had organized the demonstration, and had brought in two other Mormon women: Mary Barnes, who had heard Johnson speak a couple of months before and become inspired to challenge her faith for her rights, and Shirley Wallace, who had decided to do a year of service, like young men of her faith did, and dedicate it to passage of the ERA. There was also a Quaker, Mary Ann Beall, the third generation of feminists in her family, who was determined that she and her fellow fasters should engage with the men who would be determining their fate, saying “I want to become real to these men.” Sister Maureen Fiedler, a Sister of Mercy, was president of Catholics Act for ERA, and had spent the last four years living in un-ratified states, hard at work. Then there was Zoe Nicholson, young and new to all this, who wrote wonderfully about her experiences in a journal she bought to record the experience.

These women fasted for 37 days. At night they slept on the floor in Sunday School classrooms at the Kummler Methodist Church. First thing in the mornings they would head to the State House rotunda and stay there until the building closed at night. Most they stood, because sitting wasn’t allowed in the rotunda, though an intervention by the Illinois Nurses Association got them an acceptation allowing them each a folding chair for three hours a day.

It was meant to grab attention, to try to rally support as the days ticked down to the deadline, but it was also a spiritual act, an attempt to reach the souls of the people who were so resistant to the changes that needed to happen. They followed the examples of Thomas Jefferson and Alice Paul, who had also led fasts to change the hearts and minds of Americans.

It wasn’t just men who were resistant to change. Illinois housed the center of the Stop ERA movement led by Phyllis Schlafly, who traveled the country telling women they should stay at home. She warned of the horrors the ERA would bring: women in combat, same-sex marriage, men and women sharing bathrooms. She warned that American Christian values would be destroyed if men were no longer dominant.

Schlafly claimed the biggest threat was to housewives who would be forced to work outside the home, no longer allowed to stay home to keep house and raise their children. That it was the economic policies of the president she had helped get elected that would contribute to more and more women working outside of the home never seemed to occur to her.

Marti Sladek was sitting in the Illinois House gallery for the ERA vote in 1982, so she got to hear it live when Rep. Thomas J. Hanahan, a Democrat representing McHenry County and a dedicated member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Local 13 said that “women’s libbers” were “brainless, braless broads.”

In Springfield on other business that day, on assignment for a rather conservative old-line corporation, she’d decided to witness the historical moment.,Walking past the fasters on her way to the gallery, she was impressed by their commitment, and their willingness to speak out. She couldn’t imagine being that brave and outspoken.

Still, Sladek had been in favor of the ERA since the beginning, but initially not in any deep and meaningful way. The debate around it made her think that both sides must have reasonable arguments. A dinner with Schlafly in 1975 had changed that. At the time, Sladek was the producer of the legendary Chicago radio show, Extension 720, and she always took the guests out for dinner, which is how she found herself across the face of the Stop ERA movement. Now was the chance to hear the reasonable arguments against the ERA Sladek assumed there must be.

Instead, she found Schlafly never got deeper than her usual taking points, rattling off women in combat, same-sex marriage, and all that. When she got to shared bathrooms, Sladek asked, “You mean like we have in our homes?” Schlafly had no reply. She just paused a moment, then went on with her canned phrases. Sladek asked the central question: Why wasn’t Schlafly herself home with her husband and children? Why had she spent nearly two decades traveling the country in support of segregation, forced gender roles, and other “traditional” values if it was so important that women stay home and out of the public sphere?

Schlafly had no answer. Nothing. Just more silence before she moved on. Sladek released that there were no real answers, no real justifications for depriving women of full citizenship. The opposing argument was built of smoke and mirrors.

That is why she found herself sitting in the gallery watching the last vote on the ERA before the deadline. She might not have made the trip from Chicago to see it on her own, but it felt fortuitous that the business trip had given her the chance. When the bill failed, it shifted something in her.

Over the next few years, she began to redirect her career path until, at age 40, she went to law school so she could start working on making those changes that Phyllis Schlafly had so feared. Eventually, she’d come back to the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming an advocate traveling the country whipping up support for a new push to get it ratified.

Which brings us back to what happened last Wednesday night. You might wonder why it matters if we’ve already long since passed the deadline to ratify the ERA.

It’s like this:

The Constitution has very explicit instructions for how an amendment becomes part of the Constitution, and it gives no time limit. The 27th Amendment, for instance, known as the Madison Amendment, was approved by Congress in 1789, and then sent to the states for ratification. Only six ratified, back when 10 states were needed for federal ratification, and the amendment lay mostly dormant for over 200 years. Then an undergraduate at University of Texas-Austin, Gregory Watson, got annoyed that his teacher gave him a C on a paper he’d written claiming it could be still be ratified. She corrected him, saying that it couldn’t. He dedicated himself to proving her wrong. Ten years later, he had gotten the remaining needed states to ratify, and in 1992 it became a part of the Constitution.

The deadline was imposed by Congress, therefore it can be extended or waived by Congress. Or the courts could rule that the deadline was ridiculous and un-Constitutional in the first place, and override it.

Where Do We Go From Here

The future of the ERA hinges on the primacy of the Constitution over all other laws in this country, the very concept that makes it important. Its current situation is an excellent example of how incredibly exciting it is, and how incredibly boring it is. It has always required a big passionate full-hearted push from dedicated advocates with awakened souls. At the same time, the work of getting it into the Constitution has been a tedious series of committee hearings and court dates and small meetings of like-minded women making signs while they drank coffee.

There is always more work to be done. The final state could ratify tomorrow, and we still might have years of work ahead of us. That’s how our system works. We’ll come to an obstacle, and we’ll overcome that obstacle. Then there will be another obstacle and so on until they run out of obstacles.

When it makes it into the Constitution (providing we still have a Constitution once we get through this mess we’re in), the ERA will serve as a profound statement that women really are officially and completely citizens. It will also have almost day-to-day effect at all for a while, and when it does start having an impact on laws and judicial rulings, it will be in small-yet-meaningful ways. This is because of all the incredible work that’s been done since 1982 to move women’s equality forward without the Constitutional backing of the ERA, a little bit at a time.

The Equal Rights Amendment, once it’s in the Constitution, would prevent all of that progress from being wiped away by backward-thinking misogynist judges and lawmakers. It would stand as a bulwark against regression, a champion for all those women who worked so hard. Boring, but inspirational, as always.

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