You may have seen the “ERA Now” buttons at the State of the Union address in February. Or headlines about the Equal Rights Amendment popping up frequently in national news outlets. Or previews for Hulu’s anticipated miniseries Mrs. America, which debuts April 15.
Despite being proposed 97 years ago, the Equal Rights Amendment is still being talked about today.
The Constitution protects the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens, but nothing in the document guarantees men and women equal rights under the law. For nearly a century, the ERA has tried to rectify that issue.
The ERA was first proposed in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul. In the early 1940s, both the Republican and Democratic parties added support of the ERA to their political platforms. It grew in popularity during the 1970s and was nearly ratified as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution but stalled in state legislatures.
Today, 75 percent of Americans support an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, according to a poll released in late February from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
So why does this amendment have such a complicated history, and why should we care?
“I think people should care because when there is oppression or there is not equality, none of us really can be free.” — Associate Professor M.C. Santana
“I think people should care because when there is oppression or there is not equality, none of us really can be free,” says UCF Associate Professor M.C. Santana, who serves as program director for the Women’s and Gender Studies department. “I believe that our society is great and we have very good laws in place and amazing people as leaders, but at the same time … if we don’t respect one another — and equal rights is that respect and understanding — if we don’t have that, then really what do we have?”
Santana takes us through the history of the ERA, why it is making a comeback and where the amendment stands now.
JL: What is the ERA?
MS: The Equal Rights Amendment says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
JL: Why was it proposed, and what it did it mean at the time?
MS: It was proposed in 1923 when labor had discriminations. Jobs were segregated so you could actually see a classified ad that said, “No women bother to apply.” Some things were only for men. The public space was controlled by men. Women, especially working women who were poor, had no protection for pregnancy, no protection for schedule on the labor force, no protection of salary.
It was written by one of my very favorite suffragists, Alice Paul, [as well as] Crystal Eastmen. They both thought that women needed to have protection in the Constitution. By creating this, it tells the people of this nation, we all need the same rights — all of us — including women.
JL: Why was the ERA never ratified?
MS: In 1971 it passed Congress, but for an amendment, you also need to ratify through the states. (A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the states.) The ERA was never ratified by all the states necessary in the union, [so] Congress decided to give an extension [until] 1979. And when that did not materialize, they moved it to 1982. It was not ratified by [the 38] states needed, so it kind of died.
As of February 2020, the League of Women Voters, the National Women’s Law Center and the feminist majority are carrying on fourth-wave feminism campaigns. They’re going online baby. And they’re doing it tirelessly because they know it needs to be ratified. Virginia [recently] became the 38th state [to ratify] but because the expiration time had lapsed, it doesn’t count.
But I think that gender equality does not have an expiration date. And Congress has the power to say let’s move [the extension from 1982] to 2022 and have a separate deadline for ratification.
“I think that gender equality does not have an expiration date.”
JL: What are the arguments against the ERA?
MS: The ERA had supporters as well as people opposing it. The arguments were, well women will be drafted to the military or they will join the military or there will be equal-sex marriages or [there] could be neutral-gender bathrooms. And when we look at all those arguments and we see where we are now, we understand that it was a tactic of fear, of keeping traditional values and keeping women in the private space, not in the public space. Because in the public space, which is the labor force, that’s where women gain power and representation.
JL: Why is it making a comeback now?
MS: The ERA is having an awakening right now because it’s part of a bigger movement on gender and gender issues. We have the Me Too movement among others. It’s an awakening and an emerging revolution to understand and support gender expression as well as gender identity. And those things to me bring a smile to my face because it’s about time we [represent] all our citizens, including women.
“Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”
JL: Where does the ERA stand today?
MS: As of now the House bill passed to take away the extension that Congress imposed in 1979 and 1982, and from here the vote goes into Congress.
I am very hopeful for this generation. I can tell you this generation is particularly different from any other generation. They are extremely giving. They love to work in teams. They think of each other. They have each other’s back. I think this kind of amendment speaks to them because it would benefit the whole society. It would benefit them, their children, their grandchildren and they don’t really understand why there’s a blockage.
As my “shero” from the labor movement Dolores Huerta said, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”