“It’s 2019 and I still don’t have equal rights under the Constitution. Neither do any of you, the nearly 162 million women across the U.S.”
— Alyssa Milano, in a recent Cosmopolitan article about the E.R.A.
Do you understand the Equal Rights Amendment? That’s been my go-to party question lately, and to my surprise, most people don’t politely excuse themselves for a refill when asked.
The most common responses I’ve heard, especially from women my age, were to the effect of: “Don’t we already have that?” or “That was a ’70s thing, right?”
In fact, we don’t have it — and it wasn’t just a ’70s thing. And yet until recently, I too had little idea what it was. (Sorry to my feminist friends, young and old, who are surely horrified by this gap in knowledge. The chapter was unsurprisingly absent from my history books.) So I asked two leading E.R.A. advocates, Carol Jenkins and Carol Robles-Román, to explain what the Equal Rights Amendment is and why we’re talking about it. Here’s what I learned.
Why does the E.R.A. matter?
Because women don’t currently have equal protection under the United States Constitution. By some estimates, 80 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that women and men are guaranteed equal rights, but the only right the Constitution explicitly extends to both men and women is the right to vote.
The E.R.A., a proposed amendment to the Constitution, would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It would also require states to intervene in cases of gender violence, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment; it would guard against pregnancy and motherhood discrimination; and it would federally guarantee equal pay.
Doesn’t the 14th Amendment make it unnecessary?
Not exactly. The E.R.A. was first proposed in 1923 but wasn’t passed by Congress until 1972. It then needed to be ratified by 38 states by 1982 (a mostly arbitrary deadline) to be added to the Constitution, but only 35 states ratified it in time.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped to persuade the Supreme Court to extend the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to prohibit unequal treatment on the basis of sex — similar to what the E.R.A. would have done. But supporters said that clause doesn’t go far enough, particularly when it comes to violence against women, sexual harassment and equal pay.
The amendment also has symbolic value. “I would like to be able to take out my pocket Constitution and say that the equal citizenship stature of men and women is a fundamental tenet of our society like free speech,” Justice Ginsburg said in 2017.
Why did the E.R.A. stall?
The undoing of the E.R.A. is largely considered the handiwork of one woman: Phyllis Schlafly, a proudly anti-feminist Republican, who rallied housewives to fight the amendment in the 1970s.
Her argument was mostly that women already had equal rights, but also that the E.R.A. would tear apart the traditional family structure and strip women of remaining privileges, such as having separate bathrooms and college dormitories for men and women. These are the same arguments opponents have made in recent years as E.R.A. efforts picked up steam.
Why are we talking about it again now?
In 2017, Nevada ratified the amendment, an effort led by State Senator Pat Spearman, a Democrat. “It was then that other states said, ‘Wait a minute, you mean we can still do that?’” Robles-Román told me.
So just one more state is needed for the E.R.A. to move forward?
Pretty much. And with the House now in Democratic control and more women than ever in office, there’s renewed hope among supporters.
As for that 1982 deadline, it’s not a deal-breaker, Robles-Román and Jenkins said. Efforts are underway to try to remove it. “So much of this now is the energy and the momentum,” Robles-Román said.
Are you ready to see the E.R.A. added to the Constitution?
By the numbers
That’s how many of the 100 top films from last year had a woman in the starring or co-starring role, up from 32 in 2017. In 2007, that number was just 20.
What else is happening
Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.
In 1977, amid the fight for and against the E.R.A., Phyllis Schlafly wrote the book “The Power of the Positive Woman,” in which she challenged women’s movements. The book received a withering review in The Times.
“This is a strange little book,” wrote Lucinda Franks, who years earlier became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. “Whatever the secret of Mrs. Schlafly’s appeal, it certainly does not lie in the lucidity of her mind.”
“What is most disturbing about her book is its undertone of contempt for everyone,” Franks went on, saying that Schlafly was “basically anti‐woman” and also “anti‐men.”
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