This week Illinois lawmakers approved the Equal Rights Amendment, a long-proposed addition to the United States Constitution that would ensure equal rights to all Americans regardless of sex.
You would think that 230 years after ratifying its Constitution, the US would have some sort of federal protection like this enshrined in its supreme law.
But the ERA, which states 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,” has been languishing in Congress since 1923.
After decades of debate, it was passed by both the House and Senate in 1972. But for an amendment to be added to the Constitution, a minimum of 38 states have to sign off. By the time the deadline for ratifications passed in 1982, approvals had slowed to a trickle and stopped short of the magic number.
Recently, with the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there has been renewed interest in passing the Equal Rights Amendment. The vote in Illinois now brings the tally to 37 states – just one shy of the 38 needed to add the amendment to the Constitution.
History of the ERA
The ERA in the #MeToo era
Many states now have some sort of equal-rights language in their constitutions. But ERA advocates argue that amending the US Constitution to protect women’s rights is still a critical step that goes beyond mere symbolism.
In the wake of women-led movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo, ERA activists have found renewed energy.
“As we see attacks on women’s rights, autonomy, and bodies every single day from the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress, passing the ERA is our strongest weapon to fight back,” Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) said this week.
Maloney is the House sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and will host a shadow hearing on the need for an ERA next week on Capitol Hill. There has not been a committee hearing on the ERA in the House or Senate since 1984.
“The #MeToo movement was such a powerful phenomenon because for far too long women have not felt heard,” actress and political activist Alyssa Milano said Wednesday. “It’s hard to empower women when they are not recognized as part of our constitution. It’s simple, we need the ERA to protect women’s rights.”
But opponents of the ERA, mostly Republicans, have argued the amendment isn’t needed and would enable the removal of abortion restrictions.
States’ efforts to ensure equal rights
Meanwhile, there are other official protections that ensure equal treatment among the sexes. Nearly half of states have state consitutional amendments or specifications that cover, among other statuses, discrimination based on sex.
Some of these predate the ERA, and others, added after 1972, contain language similar to the ERA itself.
For example, Article IV of Utah’s constitution, ratified in 1896, says, “Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
An amendment to Texas’ constitution, added in 1972, states, “Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed, or national origin.”
In the US Constitution, the closest thing to an equal-rights assurance may be the 19th amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote.
The 13 states that haven’t ratified it yet
Technically, the last deadline to ratify the ERA passed in 1982. However, Congress has the power to vote to simply extend the deadline if 38 states end up approving it. So, once the ERA gets one more state’s blessing, there may be more legislative red tape to get through before it reaches official amendment status. Here are the states that have not voted to ratify the amendment:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Despite a vigorous effort by women’s rights advocates, a push to pass the ERA in Virginia died in the state legislature in February. Similar efforts also failed this year in Arizona and Florida.