E.R.A Won’t Go Away! (and we don’t want it to)

By Tara Romano, president, North Carolina Women United

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.

That, in a nutshell, is the whole of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Sure doesn’t sound like something that could have created such a fuss all these years, does it? But create a fuss it did – this was somehow giving women “special rights”, that would lead to such societal ills as birth control and abortion “on demand”; legalized prostitution; and uni-sex bathrooms. While we’re not entirely sure why working towards a society that respects everyone’s bodily autonomy and sexual expression was something to fight against, it’s unlikely any of these scenarios would have come to pass as soon as the ERA passed, if ever. What this amendment is meant to do is actually get women into the US Constitution, as technically, we’re not in there.

While this may not seem a big deal in America in 2014 (“aren’t women already equal?”), not having gender as a protected class in the US Constitution does mean we are dependent on the whims of legislatures for things like our rights. Justice Scalia said so much a few years ago:

“Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws.”, such as laws for preventing gender discrimination and sexual harassment on the job, and protection of our reproductive rights. Hmmmm, how has that been working out recently?

Justice Scalia is right that legislation can and has been used to remedy some blatant gender discrimination (Title IX is one example). But as anyone who has been a part of and/or followed different civil rights struggles knows, having something to point to in the Constitution can be key in fighting discrimination. The 14th Amendment (the Equal Protection Clause) can be used, but when it comes to things like gender discrimination on the job (including pregnancy and birth control discrimination; pay equity; sexual harassment) and reproductive rights, having an ERA which states that women can’t be discriminated against as a gender is another tool we can use in our fight for equality. And as has been so visibly on display these last few years, we need every tool we can get in our toolbox.

NCWU has two members – NC4ERA and RatifyERANC – with the main goal of passage of this crucial amendment. Check out their latest pieces on the need for the ERA in light of the Hobby Lobby decision here and here. And join us in Raleigh on Saturday, August 02, for a workshop on what the ERA is, why we need it, and what we are doing in NC to pass it (and read about NC’s unsuccessful attempts in 1982 to pass it).

Plenty of people will say “we don’t need this. Women are equal in America today; it’s just a formality”. Fine – if it’s a formality, then why don’t we just pass it? Because it’s not a formality, it’s a crucial piece in the struggle for true gender equality. And that need hasn’t gone away.

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