“Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.” Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), an early women’s rights advocate, as a young girl asked her teacher why he taught long division only to the boys. He replied,
“A girl need only know how to read the bible and count her egg money, nothing more.” Luckily, Susan B. Anthony did not give up on her education and fighting for the rights of women. Earlier – in 1776 as the Declaration of Independence was being drafted, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, President John Adams – “Dear John, I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited powers into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Unfortunately, the Declaration of Independence, signed by 56 well-to-do white men, did not include Abigail’s request, with John Adams’ response being “as to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. …We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which could completely subject us to the despotisms of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”
Yes, men would fight the women rather than give up their powers and so it has continued for hundreds of years. Even today in 2020 women have been relegated to less paying jobs, continuing to receive 80 cents on the dollar (if you are a white women; much less if you are a women of color); holding less than 27% of the seats in Corporate Boardrooms and Congress; and being fewer than 7% of the S&P CEOs.
In the United States of America—until 1837, no women had graduated from college; until 1877, no women received a doctorate; until 1920, no women could vote in a National Election; until 1936, the National Recovery Act mandated that women working in the government had to make 25% less than men; until 1964, no legal protection against discrimination in employment for women; until 1971 the Supreme Court had never declared sex discrimination to be illegal; until 1973, it was near impossible for a woman to obtain a credit card; until 1974, women had no legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace; until 1984, no woman had ever run for one of the highest offices on a national party ticket; until 1994, there was no comprehensive national legislation to address the issue of violence against women; and until the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, no legislative protection existed against pay discrimination.
Women have long struggled in the courts for three things: to persuade judges to overturn laws that discriminate against women; to ensure that laws intended to promote equality for women achieved that goal; and to be treated with dignity and respect both as lawyers and participants in judicial proceedings. A fundamental way to eliminate discriminatory laws and governments policies is to have courts invalidate them or declare them unconstitutional. However, therein lies the problem that has existed since the Constitution was written. Women’s equality is not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution. Therefore, women do not enjoy the full benefit of the Constitution’s equal protection provisions.
It was 103 years after passage of the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause—- which originally focused on discrimination on the basis of race —before the Supreme courts held a statute unconstitutional because it discriminated on the basis of sex. This occurred in Reed v Reed 1971, argued by future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which challenged an Idaho law that preferred men to women as administrators of estates.
In the 1970s Congress proposed and passed a Constitutional Amendment that needed 3/4s of the States, or 38, to ratify. The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, would ban discrimination on the basis of sex. An arbitrary deadline date of 1979 was set, and then extended to 1982; however, only 35 States ratified the Amendment. Since 2014 the
ERA Coalition has worked with organizations around the country to get to 38 States. In 2017, Nevada became the 36thState and Illinois the 37th State in 2018. It was not until this year, 2020, when the Virginia House and Senate became the 38th State to approve the ERA provisions including a guarantee that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” The fact that the deadline for ratification expired in the 1980s did not stop backers in Virginia from welcoming a long-awaited day. Some have said that since the deadline is not in the body of the Amendment there is a strong legal argument that it (the deadline) can simply be ignored. Since such an action would most certainly wind up in front of the Supreme Court, the ERA Coalition does not share that confidence.
On Thursday, February 13, 2020 the U.S House of Representative voted to approve a resolution to eliminate the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment banning discrimination on the basis of sex and guaranteeing equality for women under the Constitution. But this resolution has yet to pass the Senate……and so the ERA still remains in limbo.
Why in 2020 are women not fully recognized, protected, and equal under the United States Constitution? Virginia’s passage is historic, and we should celebrate. But we must still use our voices to get this Amendment passed.
While three out of four Americans support the ERA, the changes to the Constitution proposed five decades ago, nearly the same number of Americans, 72%, incorrectly believe the Constitution “currently” guarantees men and women equal rights under the law. How wrong so many are!
Will history repeat itself? Will we allow the Constitution to remain protecting only half the population where courts in States can continue to discriminate on the basis of gender?
The ERA Coalition, led by Chair Marcy Syms, continues to work to get more states to ratify the ERA and with US Senators Ben Cardin and Lisa Murkowski to eliminate the deadline. If anyone would like to be kept informed on or support their efforts, please go to http://www.eracoalition.org/
I will repeat my opening quote by Susan B. Anthony, written over a century ago “Men, their rights and nothing more; Women their rights, and nothing less.”
We cannot let another International Women’s Day, Month, or Year go by without the ERA getting passed. Women won the right to vote 100 years ago! It is long overdue for the law of our country – our Constitution – to recognize all citizens as equal – women and men! We must make this happen for our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and generations to come. Happy Women’s History Month!
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