Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN national security analyst and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The ERA is no longer MIA.
The Equal Rights Amendment could find new life 46 years after it passed in Congress, only to fall short of the 38 states necessary for ratification. Now Virginia may be the state to resurrect the constitutional amendment, which declares that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
Buoyed by the #MeToo movement and a body politic filled with women energized about making their constitutional equality a reality, support for the ERA has seen a revival in the past two years. Four decades after Indiana became the 35th state to ratify the ERA in 1977, Nevada signed on in March 2017 and Illinois followed suit in May of this year. If activists succeed in making Virginia the 38th, the ERA will serve as a reminder that legislation that is ahead of its time can find its moment, so long as supporters have the intestinal fortitude to press forward.
The ERA is a simple concept: enshrining the idea that women and men should not receive different treatment under the law. Federal laws such as Title IX and the Equal Pay Act prohibit sex discrimination in schools and workplaces, while some states have adopted their own versions of the ERA.
But the Constitution affirms only that men and women possess the equal right to vote. Ratifying the ERA would serve as both a symbolic and practical victory that would guarantee that one consistent legal standard protects women across America.
Now is the right time for this amendment, nearly a century after suffragist Alice Paul drafted an earlier version in the 1920s. Five decades later, Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan steered the ERA through the House, where it won an overwhelming and bipartisan vote of 354 to 24 in 1971. The Senate passed the measure five months later, with a vote of 84 to 8. But that was just the start.
Congress set a seven-year deadline to ratify the amendment with three-fourths of the states – 38 to be exact. When the last extension of that timeline came and went in 1982, only 35 states had passed the amendment. The ERA looked DOA.
But then came the 27th Amendment, which stated that salary increases for members of Congress do not go into effect until the term following their approval. James Madison originally proposed this idea in 1789, and it took more than two centuries for it to win states’ ratification. The victory came long after the deadline passed, and ERA backers were motivated by the possibility that they too could revive a long-forgotten amendment.
So activists pushed ahead. After Nevada and Illinois comes a Virginia moment, and lawmakers supporting the ERA have traveled across the state in an effort to push the amendment closer to the finish line.
“When we talk about things such as equal pay for equal work, ending sex discrimination, what we are talking about is giving those things teeth,” Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat, told NPR. Foy’s co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Glen Sturtevant, said, “We are the birthplace of the Bill of Rights, but we need to continue to make sure that we include this fundamental American value, which is equality of everyone before the law in the US Constitution.”
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While the ERA could face other obstacles, including a potential vote in Congress to change the deadline before the Constitution explicitly guarantees the equality of more than half the population, Virginia will have the chance to take it one step closer when the 400th General Assembly convenes in January.
The journey may have required nearly a century. But there has never been a more fitting time for its successful end.