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Commentary: Here's why we need the Equal Rights Amendment

Commentary: Here's why we need the Equal Rights Amendment

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When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, it never guaranteed the rights of women or men as a class to be equal. The rights it affirmed were guaranteed equally only for certain white males. Two-hundred thirty-three years later, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is necessary and here’s why.

The ERA was first introduced to Congress in 1923 and passed 49 years later (1972) as follows: “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The ERA sought to end the distinctions between genders in matters of divorce, property, employment and other legal issues.

Just like it took 72 years (1848-1920) for men and women to endure arrests, beatings, imprisonment and derision for the 19th Amendment to be part of the Constitution giving women the right to vote, here we are 97 years after Congress first introduced the ERA seeking equal rights for all American citizens regardless of gender.

States that have ratified the ERA

“Hard Won – Not Done” is the theme of Iowa’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration (circa 1920-2020; women’s right to vote) and seeking passage of the ERA is a prime example of the “Not Done” element.

Early opponents of the ERA asserted passage of the ERA would nullify alimony or Social Security benefits based on a husband's income, thus harming middle-aged women and widows who did not have the skills to join the labor force. Today’s woman is at par, skill-wise, educationally and occupationally with her male counterparts. America’s 21st century legal system has greatly assisted women’s rights. The anti-ERA arguments are now moot.

Despite gains for women’s rights, pervasive gender discrimination persists in the form of wage disparities, sexual harassment and violence.

On January 15, the Commonwealth of Virginia became the 38th state – surpassing the 3/4th state requirement -- to ratify the ERA. But Congress gave states until 1979 to ratify the ERA and then extended the deadline to 1982. How can the ERA be adopted if we’re 18 years beyond the deadline?

In 1939 the Supreme Court ruled that the question of whether an amendment has been ratified in a reasonable period of time is a “political question” best left in the hands of Congress, not the courts. Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued for jurisprudence of gender equality under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and received no rebuttal from her peers or Congress.

We know the Supreme Court’s ruling. How about the general public? Three in four Americans support the ERA; 9 in 10 Democrats and six in 10 Republicans (AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 2020). It’s not surprising that 72 percent of Americans incorrectly believe the Constitution now guarantees men and women equal rights under the law.

On Feb. 13, 2020, U.S. House of Representatives passed H.J. Res. 79 to remove the ERA deadline. S.J. Res. 6, with similar language, is now before the Senate.

In 1972, Charles Grassley voted “aye” when he served in Iowa’s House of Representatives, helping Iowa become the fourth state to ratify the ERA. With voting consistency a hallmark of Sen. Grassley, I presume he will vote “aye” on S.J. Res. 6.

Sen. Ernst was only 2½ years old at the time Iowa passed the ERA. As Iowa’s first elected female Senator, she knows, first-hand, the value of equal rights and should logically support S.J. Res. 6.

Let’s see if our 21st century Senators truly represent the equal rights of Iowa’s 21st century woman. Call Sen. Grassley (202-224-3744) and Sen. Ernst (202-224-3254) requesting they vote “aye” on S.J. Res. 6.

The ERA. It’s about time.

Doris Kelley is chair of Iowa’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration Committee, emerita of the Iowa House of Representatives (2007-2011), and emerita Chair/Vice-Chair/Executive Director – Iowa Board of Parole (2011-2014).

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