Decades After Congress Passes ERA, Its Future Still Unclear

Is America ready, finally, for the Equal Rights Amendment?

The proposed constitutional amendment was first introduced in Congress in the 1920s and then again in the early 1970s. It was passed in 1972 and sent to states for ratification.

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Last week, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA. That’s significant because 38 is the number of states needed to amend the Constitution. Just a year ago, Illinois passed the amendment. 

So now what?

There are two possibilities: The ERA could become part of the Constitution or it could die.

In a recent opinion, the Justice Department said the deadline for ratification was 1982. But some lawmakers are ready for a legal battle to try and make it the 28th amendment.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said Virginia’s ratification was necessary, especially because of increased scrutiny of women’s reproductive rights and conversations about the gender wage gap.

“There’s a deeper understanding now about why it really matters,” Steans said. “Timing of this is good.”

Illinois was a battleground state for the amendment in the 1970s. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who was based in Illinois, was the ERA’s biggest opponent.

“She had concerns about what happens in bathrooms, women getting drafted and abortion rights.” Steans said. “Women can get drafted now, but I don’t know if that’s something people still get concerned about.”

But concerns over a military draft still resonate with Elise Bouc of Stop ERA Illinois. She also says the language in the amendment isn’t specific enough and could cause women to lose their rights to privacy in spaces like bathrooms, nursing homes and prisons.

“The problem is the broad, vague language,” said Bouc. “It doesn’t allow us to treat anyone different based on their sex, even when it make sense to do so, based on biological differences.”

As for the future of the bill, there is some hope for supporters of the ERA. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced a resolution to eliminate the deadline for the ratification of the amendment.

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