Equal Rights

On July 20, 1923, Alice Paul convened the National Woman’s Party in Seneca Falls, New York, to celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, securing women the right to vote. Paul told the excited throng that a campaign for a new amendment to guarantee legal equality for women would begin right away. The 19th Amendment was just the first step on a long road to true equity and inclusion in a male-dominated society.

The amendment called for absolute equality for men and women in the United States. It was introduced in Congress that same year as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) but was dead on arrival given the political climate of the time. The 19th Amendment had almost failed by a single vote in a single state. Many suffragists called the battle won and departed to live normal lives out of the public eye. Not Paul. She knew the battle for equality was far from over. Just getting started in fact.

Twenty years later, Paul rewrote the proposed amendment in 1943, expanding the language to mirror recently passed legislation. The new amendment stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Both the democratic and republican parties added the ERA to their platforms in the 1940s, but despite rhetorical support the amendment still failed to make its way out of Congress and into the hands of the American people.

It would take another three decades before the ERA gained enough votes to pass the House of Representatives and the Senate to emerge in the streets of all 50 states for ratification in 1972. There was a problem, though, as Congress had passed a law limiting the ratification process to 7 years. Thirty-eight states needed to pass it for the ERA to become a Constitutional Amendment. Even with a three-year extension on the original time limit, the amendment failed to be ratified by only three states in June of 1982.

Since that disappointing end, three more states have gone on to pass the ERA due to an effort by activists to achieve the requisite 38 states and to lobby Congress on passing a law repealing the 7-year limit. This should allow it to be ratified as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA in 2020 just days before the House passed legislation removing the original limit. The senate failed to bring the companion bill, S. J. Res 6, to the floor for a vote. Four years later we still wait.

One hundred years after the ERA was first introduced in Congress, American society still treats women like second-lass citizens and is busy taking away their rights as quickly as they get them. By removing the final legal hurdle to ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, all the various assaults on women’s rights would face a powerful new adversary as the 28th amendment to the United States Constitution. They would have a stronger hand to play that even a partisan Supreme Court couldn’t deny.

Regressive state legislatures across the country would suddenly have a massive obstacle to their nefarious plots. Where the law was once fertile soil for malignant growths working the margins, it would now enjoy substantial antibodies against whatever virus might grow to infect our democracy and destroy trust in our institutions. Defenders of justice would have an indispensable weapon they never had before. Ironically, it would also protect all those men who never found reason to have common cause with their sisters.

That brighter future has never been closer, though the fight continues into the next Congressional session and a Senate still immune to the urgency. Here’s hoping they will finally do the right thing and let the Equal Rights Amendment become the law of the land.