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Equal Means Equal: Why the ERA Must Be Passed

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As members of Congress -- as well as candidates for the presidency -- repeatedly speak about rolling back women's reproductive rights, it's time to take a hard look at the actual status of women in the United States.

Chances are, if the average American woman were stopped on the street and asked, "Do you have equal rights in America under the law?" she would reply, "Yes."

But does she?

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Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 via the 19th Amendment . It prohibited any citizen from being denied voting rights on the basis of sex.

And that's all it did. [Ed. note: And even then, women of color, especially in the South, often faced de facto barriers to voting until the 1960s.]

Suffragettes realized that the 19th Amendment alone would not be sufficient to prohibit discrimination based on gender. Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman spearheaded efforts to make gender a classification for protection. Paul wrote up the verbiage, which was co-introduced in Congress in 1923 by Rep. Daniel Anthony, Susan B. Anthony's nephew.

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Despite being brought before the Congress annually, the amendment got no traction until 1972 when the Equal Rights Amendment ( ERA) finally passed in the House and Senate. Ratification required 38 states to sign on.

Before opposition and the 1979 deadline stymied efforts, 35 states had stood firm in their support. Then time ran out.

The amendment was reintroduced in 1982 and has been consistently put forth on a yearly basis. Now, one of its staunchest advocates, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), has teamed up with Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) to serve as bipartisan co-sponsors of a new ERA Amendment.

Forces are currently coalescing to finish off business that is almost a century overdue.

Jessica Neuwirth, a lawyer and human rights activist, founded and serves as the president of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women's Equality. I spoke to her by telephone, to discuss the goals of the organization and her book, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now. ( Meryl Streep sent copies to all the members of Congress with a cover letter asking for support of the amendment. She heard back from only five people.)

"We need a culture of accountability," Neuwirth told me emphatically, underscoring that the amendment gives women a remedy for discrimination encased in a legal provision. "It's a matter of principle. It should be set in stone as a fundamental right."

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Neuwirth walked me through some basic legalese. However, the bottom line is simple: An amendment to the Constitution would "create a new baseline and measuring stick on the legal landscape."

Cases that appear in front of the Supreme Court, from pay equity to gender violence, usually fail on the grounds that there is no constitutional basis for protection. The Supreme Court most frequently evaluates sex discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment, using "a lower standard of review" than it does for racial and religious discrimination. This is known as "intermediate scrutiny."

"In order to have inviolable protection, an amendment to the Constitution is needed. It would relieve the necessity of having to prove the intent to discriminate," Neuwirth pointed out. Plainly speaking, when a specific policy is detrimental only to women, then the principle of "equal rights on the basis of gender is violated."

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, artist and curator based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been (more...)
 

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