Decades After Deadline, Equal Rights Amendment Regains Steam

Congress signed off on amending the Constitution to include equal rights protections for women in 1972, but Illinois and 14 other states didn’t ratify the Equal Rights Amendment by a 1982 deadline.

Supporters have tried to resurrect the ERA for years, but the movement gained steam Wednesday, passing the Illinois Senate by a vote of 42 to 12.

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Every Democrat who voted cast an “aye” vote; Republicans were split. Only one female senator, Republican Jil Tracy from the Quincy area, voted against it.

Illinois’ state constitution already has this protection – it explicitly says “the equal protection of laws shall not be denied … on account of sex.”

But state Sen. Heather Steans, who is a sponsor of the measure, notes that federal law takes precedence over state law. She says there is real fear that will become an issue.

“We really do want to protect all of our rights that we’re very concerned … are going to get rolled back in some way, shape or form. When you don’t have the constitutional basis of equality, you risk that things can get rolled back,” Steans said.

For some women, the push is a reaction to President Trump; for others it’s an extension of the #MeToo movement.

“I have seem women become much more engaged in the political and policy process because they are more distinctly than ever directly impacted,” Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said. “I think some of what’s been going on around this, certainly with the sexual harassment issue – women are finding their voice in a way that they haven’t before.”

Illinois was the center of public demonstrations and battles in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, which is why Steans says she wants Illinois to play a role in the ERA’s revival.

“Illinois is really the place where the ERA died. It was very ugly here – we were never able to pass it here. We got to 35 out of 38 states that were needed to ratify and Illinois couldn’t do it. It’s time to rectify that wrong,” Steans said. “Just a year ago Nevada did it, so that made it the 36th state. We get this passed through here and obviously we need to get it done in the House … that makes the 37th state.”

While Steans mentioned Virginia as the 38th, and final, state, the Washington Post reports that an effort was defeated by the legislature in February.

It’s unclear whether there are the votes for the ERA to pass in the Illinois House, where Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, is sponsor.

While no Senate member spoke in opposition during the brief debate on Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 4 on Wednesday, critics contend the measure would roll back protections for pregnant women in the workplace, that it would force all women to be eligible for the draft and that it would force the easing of abortion restrictions.

Gov. Bruce Rauner would not need to take action; his office did not respond to a request for his stance.

Were enough states to ratify, a legal battle is anticipated, given that more than 35 years have past since the ratification’s deadline.

Rauner will meet with all four legislative leaders Thursday morning at the capitol.

He told a friendly chamber of commerce audience that he intends to “lay out the game plan for a balanced budget. And I’m going to hold some dates and some deadlines to try to get ‘em to do it. The one thing I am is persistent.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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