The concept of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been around for a century, but it's getting a renewed push of momentum in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal right to abortion.
The sponsor of the U.S. House resolution that could add the ERA to the constitution, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), said she is tired of women being subjected to second-class legal status.
“It’s long past time the constitution affirm our equality in the eyes of the law,” Pressley said Tuesday at media event in Washington, D.C. “The ramifications run deep as women face daily sexism, pregnancy discrimination, pay inequities, sexual violence and legislative attacks on our bodily autonomy,”
The language itself is short and simple, reading: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
On a practical level, advocates said the ERA would enshrine the rights of women and LBGTQ individuals in the constitution. While laws that extend protections can be overturned at the whims of Congress, it’s harder to diminish a constitutional right.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, pointed to the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“They (the justices) clearly said that the Equal Protection Clause did not cover sex discrimination,” Smeal said. “Are we doing to go back and see more things reversed? Access not only to contraception, not being able to marry who you want to marry? I mean, what is this?”
Thirty-eight states have ratified the ERA, enough for it to effectively to be considered passed and ratified. But some states did so only recently. Illinois was the penultimate state to do so, in 2018 — decades past the deadline set by Congress when it first laid out the parameters for the ERA for states to achieve ratification.
For critics, it’s a done deal: The ERA is dead because it's too late.
But advocates aren't giving up.
“This arbitrary deadline is just that. It’s arbitrary,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas). “This is not about a carton of milk with an expiration date. This is about women’s’ rights. It’s about gender equality. It’s about making sure that there is truly justice for all.”
U.S .Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that early in his political career he worked for the Illinois state Senate, where an early assignment dealt with the ERA.
“That was almost 50 years ago,” Durbin said. “They say to be a legislator you have to be patient, but this is ridiculous. It’s time for us to get the job done.”
As head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin will play a role in trying to move forward a joint resolution that would remove the deadline and recognize the ERA as part of the U.S. Constitution.
The resolution (S.J.Res. 4) reads as follows: “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That notwithstanding any time limit contained in House Joint Resolution 208, 92nd Congress, as agreed to in the Senate on March 22, 1972, the article of amendment proposed to the States in that joint resolution is valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution, having been ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States.”
Durbin said he will hold a hearing on the resolution in the near future.
Advocates are persistent and particularly motivated, but the Dobbs decision is also sure to fuel opposition as anti-abortion advocates said the ERA would remove protections for the unborn and require Medicaid — government-funded health insurance for low-income individuals — to pay for abortions.
Critics also said the ERA would lead to the overturning of labor and other protections for women and pregnant people, including women in the military draft, and erase gender-based biological distinctions in law.
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