Though she certainly wouldn’t have called herself one at the time, Bettina Hager suspects she was a feminist by age 6 or 7. She knew she was “supposed to like” pink and instead announced to anyone who’d listen that her favorite color was navy blue. She loved math and was hell-bent on running faster than boys.
Is now the time?
Hager, 30, grew up to run marathons. She reads Ms. Magazine while working out. A few years back, while working for the National Women’s Political Caucus, she once deployed a crew of interns to slip copies of Ms. – an alternative to Cosmopolitan – into Washington-area nail salons.
Today, in her new job, she sits in her small and sparse “cubicle that could,” helping to mobilize a crusade that began more than 90 years ago.
Her marching orders, as the D.C. director of the ERA Coalition, are to help pass and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution that would explicitly protect women’s rights and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.
Hager is just one fresh face in a rejuvenated movement to make this happen.
Though first introduced in 1923, the last time the country really paid attention to the ERA was in the 1970s and early ‘80s, before Hager was even born. That was when feminist activists brought the issue to a boil. But after failing to secure the required number of state ratifications to pass the ERA by its 1982 deadline, the campaign was reduced to a low simmer.
These days, though, it seems the fight for women’s equality is heating up.
Just look toward Tinseltown. Emma Watson’s now-famous September speech to the United Nations about feminism was watched millions of times. The hack of emails at Sony Pictures revealed pervasive Hollywood gender wage gaps. And then there was Patricia Arquette’s recent Oscar acceptance speech for her role as a struggling single mom in “Boyhood.” She took to the podium, calling out for equal pay and rights for women in the United States, and inspired a social media frenzy – not to mention enthusiastic cheers from Meryl Streep. In a backstage interview, Arquette specifically raised the need for the constitutional amendment.
Meantime, there’s a new book and soon-to-be completed documentary about the ERA, both titled “Equal Means Equal.” And, in the midst of these coordinated efforts, lawmakers who’ve sponsored previous attempts to resurrect the ERA plan to publicly stand together at the U.S. Capitol when they reintroduce their bills in the coming weeks.
Sure to be there cheering them on will be activists like Hager, millennial women inspired by those who’ve walked before them. The question hanging over them: Will this time be different?
Necessity or waste of time?
A toasty and crowded wood-paneled room, high up in Manhattan’s Yale Club, buzzes with experience and credentials.
Taking a break from writing her latest book is Gloria Steinem, arguably the most recognized name and face in feminist activism. Walking by is Robin Morgan, a poet and writer whose 1970 anthology, “Sisterhood is Powerful,” helped galvanize a movement. Shaking hands is Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who has been introducing the ERA in every congressional session since 1997.
Others in the room are high-powered attorneys, heads of foundations and nonprofits, local government insiders. Since the time of the last ERA push, the percentage of women in the workforce has grown. In 1970, nearly half of mothers stayed home. As of 2012, less than 30% do, according to the Pew Research Center. That shift helps drive a tide of interest in equal opportunities and pay, supporters say.
Women who work full-time earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, a raise of just about 19 cents since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. For women of color, the picture is worse, with black women making 64 cents and Latinas making 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white man.
The face of ERA opposition during the last big go-round isn’t swayed by such figures; in fact, she calls them lies. Phyllis Schlafly, the 90-year-old conservative activist who founded the Eagle Forum, insists gender-neutral employment law already protects women doing equal work with equal experience.
The ERA is “dumb and offensive,” she tells me in a phone call. And a new push for it is “a colossal waste of time.”
Schlafly once warned that the ERA would lead to same-sex marriage and women being drafted into combat. She also said it would threaten families, an argument she still makes. She touts the virtues of the traditional nuclear family with a gender-division of duty, wherein husbands provide and wives focus on the home and children.
“But didn’t you go to law school? Weren’t you a lawyer?” I ask.
“I only went to law school to irritate the feminists,” she says with a laugh.
She told Lopez, “Women like the pay gap.” And she talked about hypergamy, the notion of marrying up, saying if a man doesn’t earn as much as a woman, it is a “deterrent to marriage.”
The women gathered at the Yale Club in New York scoff when they hear Schlafly’s name. They care about issues beyond gender roles and pay equity. They chat over wine and hors d’oeuvres about the injustice of piled-up, untested rape kits. They voice outrage that National Football League star Ray Rice was not prosecuted in New Jersey for assaulting his then-fiancée. They commiserate with each other about ways they still must educate trial lawyers and judges about sexual harassment and assault cases, offering examples like, “No, you can’t ask if her skirt was too high.”
Weaving past these women and men – mostly older feminists with deep pockets – is Hager. She, too, has come here this biting-cold January evening to support the ERA Coalition and celebrate the release of the new book, “Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment is Now,” written by the coalition’s founder and president – and Hager’s colleague – Jessica Neuwirth.
A women’s rights lawyer, Neuwirth established the international organization Equality Now and was a director in the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She’s spent much of her career focused on Africa, steeped in cases of genocide, sexual violence and war crimes.
She met Maloney years back during discussions about sex trafficking, and the congresswoman approached her about taking up the ERA charge. Neuwirth, 53, says she welcomes the chance to work on something close to home and, in her mind, so positive and unambiguous.
Using court cases as examples, Neuwirth sets out in her book to answer why the ERA is necessary, addressing the question she hears so often from people who assume that it already passed or that women’s rights are already covered by existing laws and constitutional language.
“It was literally just a handful of votes that stopped the ERA,” she tells the group assembled in New York. “Surely with social media and the new generation of women and men who do not believe in second-class citizenship for women, we can get the ERA across the finish line and put it in the Constitution where it belongs.”
Those around her cheer, but opponents more contemporary than Schlafly bristle at the idea of women seeing themselves as victims.
A Tumblr site and Facebook page dedicated to “Women Against Feminism” feature young women brandishing their own versions of that argument. “If I experience sexism, I stand up for myself and move on,” writes one woman. “Bitching about it will get me nowhere.”
Others warn of unanticipated fallout if the ERA passes. Parents who enroll their children in single-sex schools or organizations like the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts may lose that choice, says Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.
Ongoing claims about a wage gap are overblown and speak more to women’s choices than to discrimination, says Schaeffer, whose organization counts Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, among its supporters.
“Women would be far better served by having an honest conversation about the things they hope to achieve and the choices they’re making along the way, from their college major to if they want to take time out of the workplace,” Schaeffer wrote me in an email, “than any kind of legislation which would make women more expensive to hire and ultimately less attractive to businesses.”
Arguments like these leave Neuwirth baffled.
“Anyone who says that paying women equally and treating them equally in the workplace makes it more expensive for businesses to hire them … is saying in effect that women are worth less than men,” she says. “Equality in the workplace is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing for business and a good thing for men as well as women.”
People often assume women’s rights are secure thanks to the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment, Neuwirth says. That amendment was adopted in 1868. The mere fact that it took another five decades for women to get the right to vote, she says, proves the clause wasn’t about them.
And laws bearing names like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Equal Pay Act and Violence Against Women Act may sound great, but they’re not ironclad guarantees of protection.
In her book, Neuwirth outlines stories of women who have tested the power of federal statutes. One had been raped in college, only to see an admitted attacker go unpunished. Another took out a restraining order against her violent husband, who went on to kill their three daughters. In both instances, the women sued authorities for failing to act and took their cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be told there was no constitutional basis for their protection.
Other court decisions have justified unequal pay for identical work, as well as the firing of women from jobs they were still capable of doing simply because they got pregnant.
Women who think their interests are sufficiently protected, Neuwirth tells the Yale Club gathering, have been duped by a fairy tale.
“Who would know that better,” she says, “than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia?” She cites what he told California Lawyer in a January 2011 issue: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
A battle rich in history
Last April, Scalia appeared at the National Press Club beside his judicial polar opposite – and friend – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The two were asked how they would amend the Constitution, if they could.
The Notorious R.B.G., as she is sometimes referred to these days, didn’t hesitate.
“If I could choose an amendment to add to this Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said.
“What do you mean by that?” asked the moderator, Marvin Kalb.
“It means that women are people equal in stature before the law,” she said. “We have achieved that through legislation, but legislation can be repealed. It can be altered. … That principle belongs in our Constitution. It is in every constitution written since the Second World War.”
When her granddaughters pick up the U.S. Constitution, Ginsburg added, she’d “like them to see that that is a basic principle of our society.”
The idea of an Equal Rights Amendment in the United States isn’t new. It was the brainchild of Alice Paul, a suffragist leader who fought hard to pass the 19th Amendment, earning women the right to vote in 1920.
Believing that wasn’t enough to end discrimination, Paul then drafted the ERA and introduced it to Congress in 1923.
From then until 1970, the amendment was presented during every congressional session. Over the years, it enjoyed bipartisan support. For decades it stayed on the Republican platform. But it rarely made it out of committee. A growing women’s movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s set out to change that.
In 1972, the ERA passed by the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, was endorsed by President Richard Nixon and then sent to state legislatures for ratification.
The key language, tweaked from Paul’s original version, read:
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
To pass an amendment, three-quarters of the states – or 38 of them – must ratify it. There was a deadline tied to this effort, though; at first seven years, then extended to 10. By the time 1982 rolled around, 35 states had ratified the ERA. The amendment failed to pass, falling three states short.
The fight on the national stage grew quiet, but the ERA has been reintroduced every congressional session since then. With the exception of 1983, when House representatives voted on it once more, the ERA has never again made it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.
Rep. Maloney hopes this year will shift the tide.