‘There are no assumed rights’: Push for passage of ERA gains momentum once again

  • About 175 men, women and children dressed in white line the railing of the Calvin Coolidge Bridge across the Connecticut River, June 30, 1982, in a silent vigil to express concern over the failure of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2019 4:14:17 PM

For nearly a century in the United States, women have fought to be recognized as equal to men under the Constitution. Originally drafted in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, sought to change the Constitution to explicitly state that women’s rights are the same as men’s rights. At the core, it demands that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Massachusetts ratified the amendment on June 21, 1972, but the bill’s passage ultimately depended on three-fourths approval from states.

On June 30, 1982, Nicole LaChapelle, then a teenager, and feminists across the country were disheartened to see the ERA fail; only 35 states ratified the bill out of the required 38 before a deadline set by Congress.

“It was an emotional day,” the Easthampton mayor recalled in an interview this week. “To have that goal unachieved made me, in the eyes of the Constitution, a lesser person.”

Nearly four decades later, amid women’s marches around the country, #MeToo and Time’s Up, there is once again momentum building in the nation’s capital to enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution.

Bipartisan legislation is expected to be introduced to the U.S. Senate soon in order to lift the 1982 deadline, according to reporting by The Hill. Article V of the Constitution allows for amendments approved by two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate and ratified by three-fourths of the 50 states.

Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are co-sponsoring a bill to remove the deadline.

“It is easy to hear the argument that there are now federal and state laws that protect against gender and sex discrimination and that a Constitutional amendment is not as needed as it once was,” LaChapelle said. “Clearly, over the last four years, we are all learning that there are no assumed rights. We cannot assume Roe v. Wade will stand. We can’t assume that the Lilly Ledbetter (Fair Pay) Act will stand.”

Rights determined through Roe, which allowed women in the U.S. to access legal and safe abortions, and through the Fair Pay Act, which expanded women workers’ rights to sue in cases of pay inequity, need to be codified into the Constitution to make them undeniable, LaChapelle said.

She added that women’s reproductive rights, pay equity and protection from domestic violence are standing on “shifting sands.”

A Constitutional amendment would provide more power for people pushing for pay equity, reproductive rights and protections against sexual assault for women, said Carrie Baker, a Smith College professor and the director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender.

“We have weak laws on those issues, and if there were a Constitutional amendment, depending on how it were phrased, it would provide strong ammunition to push for better laws to protect women,” Baker said. “The last two years under Trump have exposed how the rights we take for granted can be snatched away.”

Baker pointed to the Department of Education, headed by Sec. Betsy DeVos, which has proposed rule changes that would strengthen the rights of students accused of sexual assault, sexual harrasment or rape on college campuses, and reduce liability for higher education institutions.

And the Trump administration has attempted the “rollback of the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate,” Baker said.

In January, a U.S. district judge blocked the administration from enforcing new rules that would restrict women from getting birth control at no charge if their employers objected on religious or moral grounds.

“This is the sort of discriminatory behavior of governments and employers that could be addressed through the Equal Rights Amendment,” Baker said.

‘Bread-and-butter issue’

The ERA has a long and winding history, including here in the Valley. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, many women’s groups pushed for the legislation to be passed. In 1979, for example, a “task force” made up of Smith College students proposed a boycott against states that had not ratified the ERA and spoke to the Gazette about the importance of supporting the amendment. “The only way we can really help the ERA,” said then-sophomore Jennifer Jackman, “is to recruit a lot of people from all different bases. It’s important to work with the outside community, and within our own. This is a real bread-and-butter issue.”

Today, with a record number of women lawmakers in Congress — there are 102 in the House and 25 in the Senate — there is hope among activists and legislators that there will be enough support to shepherd the ERA into law.

In the past two years, the push for the ERA to become law has gained traction. Nevada ratified the bill on March 22, 2017 and Illinois followed suit on May 30, 2018, becoming the 37th state to do so.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Mary Olberding, the Hampshire County register of deeds. “It was tremendous that women in 2018 were elected at record numbers at all levels of government, but we can’t stop until we have parity.”

To Olberding, parity means not just 50-50 rights for men and women; it also means lawmakers taking into account women’s needs during policy-making discussions.

“We gave men a chance when they crafted health care and dependent care regulations,” Olberding said. “Women were not consulted to make sure women’s needs were included, and something like the ERA can make it happen.”

In 2011, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told California Lawyer magazine: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

A previous version of this story misquoted Smith professor Carrie Baker. The correct quote is, “rollback of the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com

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