By Sylvia M. Ramos, M.D.
“Please, sir, may I?” will not get us where we need to go.
Once again, the public skirts the issue. A number of recent articles in the New York Times about President Obama’s inner circle of advisers and cabinet secretaries such as, “Obama’s remade inner circle has an all-male look, so far” on January 8 and a gentle rebuke, “We offer more than ankles, gentlemen” on January 13 highlight how we continue to miss the point. Women are often excluded from the highest levels of power and policy-making positions not only in government but also business and communications because our Constitution does not state that women and men are equal under the law. There are multiple studies in the literature that assess the overt and insidious negative impact of a lack of recognized equality on women’s psychological, economic, social and political well-being. This lack of recognition also has immense adverse effects on the social perceptions and well-being of men and children.
Alice Paul worked tirelessly to pass the Suffrage Amendment in 1920, then helped write and introduce in Congress the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Some women’s organizations of the time opposed the amendment because they felt what women needed was protective legislation rather than a guarantee of equal treatment under the law. Yet Paul forged ahead with the amendment. Perhaps she understood that needing protection always leaves the perception that the protected is not equal to the protector. Perhaps she knew that women are very well able to care for themselves, given a level playing field.
Nevertheless, it seems that the naysayers have won, so far. There is an implied belief in the mass media, government and even some women-focused organizations that the time for the ERA has passed, that it is no longer relevant. However, a quick perusal of any newspaper any day will find stories about new actions that curtail or rescind even the modest gains that have been made on behalf of women’s rights over the past 100 years. Protective laws at the state level, such as the Wisconsin Equal Pay Enforcement Act that was intended to address the persistent wage disparity between women and men in the same job, have been revoked. Even though abortion is a constitutionally protected right, in 2011 there were 92 provisions in state laws enacted nationally that restrict access to abortion services. Additionally, even well-meaning federal laws have failed to achieve equality. The Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963 at a time when women earned 59% of what men were paid. Women now earn 77 cents for every dollar men are paid for the same work. That figure is 69 cents for African-American women and 52 cents for Latinas. Contrary to popular belief, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 does not ensure equal pay for equal work—it only allows for a longer period of time during which suits against pay discrimination may be brought.
Ninety years after the introduction of the ERA we continue to fight every single act of injustice toward women with a cry for new legislation that will protect us. We turn to new waves of predominantly male legislators to help us out once again. Year after year they come to ask us, and we give them our votes in hopes that they will help ensure our rights. Yet, when it comes time to choose leaders who will help set policy for our nation, whose citizens are over 50% female, the same legislators choose from among their peers—people they perceive are of equal ability and feel comfortable with—the same cadre of men. This will not change until women are recognized to have the same right as men to equal treatment under the law, equal access to the same lifework building opportunities, equal opportunity to enter into the halls of power and to rise to the top levels of our government.
Women don’t need to have their rights protected. We need to have our rights guaranteed. The only way we will finally achieve this is to have the Equal Rights Amendment inscribed in our Constitution. We owe it not only to Alice Paul but to the hundreds of women who fought valiantly, went to jail, starved and were institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals just for asking for their basic human rights.
Sylvia Ramos M.D. 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 Equal Rights Amendment ratification campaign for the American Humanist Association.