Women’s History Month: History Yet to Be Made on Equal Rights Amendment

(Research for this article was provided by Karen Ide)

As March is Women’s History Month in the United States, it’s a fitting time to examine some history that many mistakenly believe has already been “made.”

Our nation has come a long way since the US Constitution was written. To better fulfill its vision of justice for all, amendments have been added that forbid discrimination on the basis of race, extend voting rights to all races and to women, and reduce the voting age to eighteen. However, discrimination on the basis of gender is still not accounted for in the supreme law of the United States.

National polls show 70 percent of Americans believe that women and men have equal rights under the US Constitution. Other Americans believe that equality for women is covered under the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that “[a]ll persons” shall have “the equal protection of the laws,” but only “males” are specified in the language referring to suffrage. The only right that the Constitution specifically affirms to be equal for women and men is the right to vote, as a result of the women’s suffrage movement (Nineteenth Amendment, 1920).

Though the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution was passed in Congress in 1972, it remains “unfinished business” because it was only approved (over an extended period of ten years) by thirty-five of the thirty-eight state legislatures required to ratify it. (Ironically, twenty-two states have promulgated and passed their own state version of ERA legislation, contributing to confusion.) Thus, the ERA cannot be considered fully adopted, and women in the US, the country supposedly pioneering modern democracy, are not guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution.


Why Is the Equal Rights Amendment Still Necessary Today?

Guarantee. The ERA is needed to provide the constitutional assurance that all men and women are truly equal under the law and that these rights cannot easily be abridged. Only the ERA can remove all doubt. Once and for all, it would be clear.

Consistency. Depending upon where they live, women are subject to diverse discriminatory laws. These change from one state to another. How women are legally protected should not differ from state to state.

Nondiscrimination. The ERA would clarify, once and for all, that sex discrimination—whether in employment, reproductive rights, insurance, Social Security, education, or other contexts—is a violation of women’s constitutional rights as Americans.

Equal Pay and the Workplace. Many of us know the statistic that today a woman makes seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar working the same job. Ratification of the nationwide ERA will level the playing field. Men also have a lot to gain. If employers are not allowed to pay women less than men, both sexes will benefit from reduced drag on income. The ERA will pave the way for workplace practices related to pregnancy and parental leaves, childcare, and other issues to be more universal. This will make it easier for families to combine work with family life and to move from one job to another.

Fair Legal Standards. Now the courts can use what is called “strict scrutiny” in cases pertaining to discrimination by race, religion, and national origin. But only “intermediate scrutiny” can be used in questions of gender discrimination. The ERA would enable court reviews of sex discrimination cases using strict scrutiny. This would enhance the courts’ effectiveness in dispensing justice. Both sexes would be treated equally, as fully responsible human beings with self-determination.

Global Respect. Making the ERA a part of the US Constitution can improve the standing of the United States globally. It will document the specific guarantee of equal rights for women in our country that many other countries already have! And then the US, too, will be setting this example for developing nations.

Only six countries have not signed the vitally important Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), described as an international bill of rights for women.  The United States has signed CEDAW but hasn’t yet ratified it. Interestingly, the United States insisted that all countries drafting constitutions after World War II include a statement that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

How strange that the US Constitution has no such clause when it is easily fixable.


The Pro-ERA Movement Today

Since 1982, ERA legislation of some kind has been introduced in Congress during nearly every session. Some have been bills supporting a complete start-over of the movement. Other bills support what is called the “three-state strategy” which would remove the deadline to ratify from the amendment. Arguments for and against each of these methods have been explored by activist groups and through social media. Humanists and Feminist Caucus members who are most active typically favor the three-state approach and urge more people to get on that bandwagon.

During the 113th Congress of the United States (which ended December 2014), bipartisan legislation to remove the deadline for ERA ratification and start-over legislation were both introduced again. Each of these bills slowly gained support during the congressional period. With the 114th Congress now in session, new legislation likely will be introduced and championed by a growing number of congressional sponsors and advocates—especially if the public and people like us push them to do so!

The unratified states number only fifteen: three adjacent western states—Arizona, Nevada, and Utah; eight adjacent southern coastal states—North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; and four adjacent central states—Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. States not named above are among the thirty-five that voted in their state legislatures to approve.

Momentum is building. The number of humanists supporting the ERA and the number of Feminist Caucus members actively working with others in the Pro-ERA movement is growing, especially in favor of ratification by at least three more states. Reason suggests that the five states that have an equal rights amendment in their state constitutions but that didn’t ratify the national ERA—Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Utah, and Virginia— should ratify it for consistency.

There is activity at the state level as well. Virginia’s Senate recently passed legislation, with the bill yet to be passed in its House of Delegates. Illinois, which has a proactive coalition of pro-ERA three-state strategy speakers and activists, including American Humanist Association, the AHA Feminist Caucus, and Unitarian Universalist members, passed ratification of the federal ERA in its Senate in 2014 and plans to introduce that bill in its House during this 2015 session.

There is work to be done. In New Mexico, a state that has both ratified the national ERA and a state equal rights amendment, the Humanist Society of New Mexico, led by Dr. Sylvia Ramos and Zelda Gatuskin, have used Women’s Equality Day celebrations to promote removal of the ERA ratification deadline.


You Can Help

  1. Contact media about removing the ERA ratification deadline and contact Congress about this via letters, email, social media, and using the Capitol Switchboards: (202) 224-3121 and (877) 762-8762.
  2. Use friendly persuasion to get citizens in at least three unratified states to get their state legislatures to pass ratification of the ERA.


Sources and Resources


American Association of University Women
National Council of Women’s Organizations
Humanist Society of New Mexico
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Chicago Tribune
History Matters
Virginia ERA Network
Makers, Women Who Make America, PBS, 2013
Makers, Volume 2, PBS, 2014


Equal Rights Amendment

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

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