For the second time in a century, a global pandemic has occurred at the height of a determined movement to expand women’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. The 1918 flu pandemic nearly halted the drive for ratification of the 19th Amendment on women’s suffrage.But advocates rallied, lobbied President Woodrow Wilson for support and urged Congress to pass a joint resolution adopting the amendment. That was followed by ratification by the states and final certification in August 1920.
Today, the campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment is in the middle of another global pandemic with women losing jobs at a much higher rate than men, especially affecting women of color. In these first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration and during Women’s History Month, there is a real opportunity to make constitutional history again with lasting change for women’s rights and gender equality by adding the ERA to the Constitution.
No rights denied ‘on account of sex’
Congress approved the ERA in 1972. It says, very simply, that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
President Joe Biden and Congress now have the opportunity to rally as well. This week, the House of Representatives will consider a joint resolution clearing the way for the ERA to be added to the Constitution. If the Senate also adopts the resolution, it could become part of the Constitution this year.
The ERA won ratification by the necessary three-fourths of the states when Virginia became the 38th state last year. Earlier, Nevada ratified in 2017 and Illinois in 2018. However, the ERA has yet to be formally enshrined into the Constitution because of an arbitrary timeline in the amendment’s preamble — not the legislative text sent to the states for approval — which set 1979 for ratification. Congress changed the timeline by extending it to 1982.
Congress can again weigh in by removing the timeline and recognizing the final three states, because Article V of the Constitution puts the amending process with the Congress and ratification with the states.
Congressional action is needed to support the attorneys general of Virginia, Nevada and Illinois, who went to federal court asking the national archivist to include the ERA in the Constitution. But a U.S. district judge ruled this month that the three states did not have standing to bring the case, and the 1982 deadline remains in effect.
Now is the time for Congress to recognize there can be no time limit on equality. The House and Senate should approve a joint resolution “removing the deadline for the ratification of the equal rights amendment.” The measure, introduced in the House in January, already has more than 200 co-sponsors.
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The vast majority of Americans across demographic and partisan lines agree that women should have equal rights with men in this country. In a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, more than 9 in 10 U.S. adults said it is very important (79%) or somewhat important (18%). Fully 78% of U.S. adults — including majorities of women, men, Republicans and Democrats — favored adding the ERA to the Constitution.
‘All men would be tyrants if they could’
Abigail Adams is often quoted as saying, “Remember the Ladies.” In March of 1776, she wrote more than these three words to her husband, John,just months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted and as he was engaged in drafting the U.S. Constitution. She had some ideas about what should be included “in the new code of laws” he was making: “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. … Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to formant a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
That rebellion has been taking place through the hundreds of peaceful ERA marches and rallies that led up to the 2017 Women’s March, events that galvanized millions of women and men nationwide to new levels of political activism. The #MeToo movement sparked public outrage over sexual assault and misogyny in the workplace.
In 2020, women again far outnumbered men as voters with a gender gap that has become decisive in presidential, Senate and House elections. And women and men alike supported the Equal Rights Amendment by electing a pro-ERA majority of members in the House and Senate.
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An estimated 1 million more women than men have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the pandemic shows that most essential workers are women, most of them are Black and Latina, and most still have the majority of caregiving responsibilities. These along with other economic realities make constitutional rights for women more urgent than ever before.
The pandemic has sparked a reexamination of the role of government and the need for social safety net and economic policies that work for all. In short, the new reality of 2021 demands that Congress approve the ERA resolution. It will mark a historic commitment to women’s rights by ensuring equality under the law for current and future generations.
Dolores Huerta (@DoloresHuertaFD) is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Carol Jenkins (@CarolJenkins) is president of the ERA Coalition. Eleanor Smeal (@EllieSmeal) is president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.