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Is the ERA passe?

       Is the Equal Rights Amendment an idea whose time has past?  With a sense of disloyalty, I confess to feeling less excited than fatigued by news of its rebirth.  Democrats have given it a new name -- the Women’s Equality Amendment -- and re-introduced it in Congress.  They promise to hold hearings on the amendment in the House and start a new push for ratification. (A two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress is required to pass the WEA and send it to the states; 38 states must ratify the amendment in order for it to become enshrined in the Constitution.)

      “Equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  I can offer many reasons to pass this amendment and none to oppose it; still my support for an ERA (by any name) has become oddly dispassionate.  Maybe it’s the perilous state of everyone’s civil liberties; maybe it’s the war; maybe it’s the systematic dishonesty and incompetence with which the country is governed; maybe it’s the tabloid culture and the failures of the press; maybe it’s religious fundamentalism; maybe it’s terrorism and global warming.  Passing the Women’s Equality Amendment just doesn’t feel like a priority.

       I’m not suggesting that women have achieved equality – socially, economically or even legally.  Because we have no equal rights amendment, because the Supreme Court has never been composed of feminists, because many people still consider some role differentiation between men and women only natural, sexual discrimination is not quite as unconstitutional or un-respectable as racial discrimination.  But women have made impressive progress toward equality since the last ERA battle in the 1970s (when the amendment was narrowly defeated in the states.) 

       Compare the reaction to Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as democratic candidate for vice president in 1984 with the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as president next year.  While Ferraro’s selection seemed like a breakthrough – I remember feeling buoyed by it -- Clinton’s nomination is an arguable probability (although I wouldn’t place any bets on the presidential.)
   
    Of course, the advances of a handful of women in powerful, high profile jobs is partly symbolic and doesn’t necessarily indicate equivalent advances by the rest of us.  But, look around in academic, business, government, and industry; you’ll see at least some women where you used to see only men.  And some of the primary obstacles to full equality aren’t legal but social or cultural: divisions of labor within the home, sexual violence and objectification, or the devaluation of occupations dominated by women are not problems that are apt to be solved by an ERA.

    So while anti-feminists will organize against the Women’s Equality Amendment, women who identify or sympathize with feminism may not be sufficiently motivated to organize for it -- although the sexism of WEA opponents might prove motivation enough.  A constitutional guarantee of sexual equality should no longer be controversial, but the usual opponents are already raising the usual sorts of objections.  

       After some 35 years, ERA scourge Phyllis Schlafly is back.  Last time around, she helped defeat the ERA by raising the specter of same sex bathrooms and pointing out the real prospect of a non-discriminatory draft.   Now she argues that the amendment could compel recognition of same sex marriages and result in denial of social security benefits to widows and housewives.  

       Similar concerns about the ERA’s effect on legal privileges and protections for women who were presumed to be dependent on male breadwinners aroused progressive opposition to the ERA when it was first introduced by the relatively radical National Women’s Party in 1923.  Schlafly might find an unlikely historical ally in Eleanor Roosevelt among other early 20th century female reformers who were intent on protecting housewives, widows, and wage earning mothers from the rigors of equality.   

       Women today are a lot less likely to fear equality.  The question is how hard will we fight for a constitutional guarantee of it?


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