Feminist Caucus Update: Yes, We Still Need the ERA!

By Sylvia M. Ramos, M.D.

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

I remember the day in 1982 when all our efforts to get that simple statement enshrined in our Constitution came to a halt just three states short of ratification. Unfortunately, despite our subsequent activism at the ballot box and hard-won advances in social, economic, and political spheres, we do not yet have the right to participate fully as citizens in this country. Today, 30 years later, the tiny steps forward that we have taken through political and judicial actions such as the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Violence Against Women Act (1994) and the Lilly Ledbetter Act (2009) are under attack and will continue to be until the right of women to be treated equally becomes the law of the land. Only then will American women and men live in a country that not only talks the talk but also walks the walk of egalitarianism.

Since 1974 the American Hhumanist Association (AHA) has passed resolutions that endorse the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and support national efforts that advance the cause of women’s rights. This year’s 71st AHA Annual Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, saw resurgence in the activity of the Feminist Caucus under the leadership of Stephanie Downs Hughes and Zelda Gatuskin. Everyone was energized by the presence and wise counsel of feminist leaders including Debra Sweet and Gloria Steinem, both of whom were honored at the conference as Humanist Heroine and Humanist of the Year, respectively.

The Equal Rights Amendment is not a panacea. However, we believe that it will make it more difficult to abolish women’s rights piece by piece, year after year. After all, it is harder to chisel out an amendment inscribed in the Constitution than to chip away at laws and acts that exist at the whim of whoever the politicians are at the time. Given the vehement and increasing attacks on women’s rights and the heightened awareness of these issues in the news media, it is clear that this is the time to push forward, toward ratification, once again.

Therefore, the Feminist Caucus of the AHA has decided to focus on this effort by adopting the three-state strategy. The first step is to convince the U.S. Congress to remove the deadline for ratification of the ERA, since 35 states have already signed it. The second step will be to get an additional three states to ratify the amendment so that it becomes part of our Constitution. This campaign is being coordinated for the AHA by the Feminist Caucus of the Humanist Society of New Mexico; the website details our work and provides links to other pertinent sites.

Like all grassroots efforts, we have reached out to other groups working toward the same purpose, and it has been gratifying to learn how many are already in the trenches. We are working closely with Carolyn Cook of United for Equality, an organization that has been spearheading this effort for many years and has been successful in enlisting congressional support for House and Senate resolutions that support removing the ratification deadline. We are sending e-mail alerts and materials to our networks asking them to contact their members of Congress to sign on as co-sponsors of these resolutions, to sign online petitions to move these resolutions forward, and to involve their relatives and friends in this effort.  Additionally, we are gathering advice and expertise from local activists, consultants, and political figures, with the hope of maximizing media coverage. As a volunteer organization, we are fortunate to be able to rely on the goodwill, commitment, and energy of our members to keep us moving forward.

It took 72 years for women in this country to be guaranteed the right to vote by the 19th Amendment in 1920. Ninety-two years later, on August 26, we are about to celebrate another Women’s Equality Day, established through the efforts of Representative Bella Abzug in 1971. Sadly, women still do not have equal rights in the United States of America.

This campaign is a work in progress and a difficult road lies ahead. However, as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Our goal is to make equal rights for women in the United States a reality so that our girls and boys can grow up in a country where their opportunities and achievements will be based on their personal talents and character, not on their gender. That is their right as human beings. This is the cause for our time.

Sylvia M. Ramos is a breast surgeon and member of the American Humanist Association and the Humanist Society of New Mexico (HSNM). As chair of the Feminist Caucus of HSNM, she is coordinating the ERA ratification campaign for the AHA.