Did you know that women and men are not equal according to the highest law of the land?
If you didn’t, you’re not alone.
The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote will be celebrated next year. What many Americans don’t know about the 19th Amendment is that it only gave women the vote, it did not give us equal rights. The truth is that for many women in the 1920s having the right to vote was one thing, many had to get permission from their husbands in order to use it. And of course, the white women suffragists who fought a long and often life-threatening battle to get that right, didn’t include women of color in their petitions and didn’t live long enough themselves to actually cast a vote.
After women fought for and won the vote, Alice Paul, one of the suffragists who believed the 19th Amendment didn’t go far enough, began organizing and leading protests and hunger strikes in Washington in support of an Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA. That was 1923 and there is still no ERA in the US Constitution.
If you know the history of this struggle, you know that an ERA amendment was passed by Congress in 1972. But in order for an amendment to become part of the Constitution, it needs three-fourths of the states to ratify it and that hasn’t happened. The ratification stalled at 35 states in 1982 and remained stuck until 2017, when Nevada became the 36th state to ratify, and in 2018, Illinois became the 37th state.
Thirty-eight states are needed. In the past few months, several state legislatures, including those in Virginia, Arizona, Delaware, and my home state of Georgia, have been debating whether to become the final state to ratify the ERA. Earlier this year in Virginia, supporters of the ERA lost by only one vote.
Why It Matters
I talked to Jessica Neuwirth, the cofounder of the ERA Coalition and author of Equal Means Equal. She says that although it’s true many laws have been passed in the last century to protect the rights and equality of women, the ERA is still necessary and would make an immediate difference for women.
“Gender-based violence is the best case for [ratifying] the ERA,” she told me, ““because it would give women recourse they don’t currently have to federal courts in domestic violence and sexual harassment cases.” It would also guard against pregnancy and motherhood discrimination and other forms of sex discrimination at work, such as making equal pay a federal requirement.
Gail Buckner, co-chair of 38 Agree for Georgia, agrees, “The equal protection clause that RBG used as the basis for many of her court cases in the 1970s and 1980s has to be interpreted by jurists to include women, because nowhere in the Constitution is it explicitly stated.”
“I would like to be able to take out my pocket Constitution and say that the equal citizenship stature of men and women is a fundamental tenet of our society like free speech,” Justice Ginsburg said in 2017.
But right now, in spite of Justice Ginsberg’s lifetime of work, the efforts of state committees in the unratified states, and the commitment of millions of American women and men who have not given up this fight, we don’t have equal citizenship or rights and that matters everywhere and in every aspect of work and life.
Let me bring this closer to home for myself and the women of Georgia. As Mindy Boggs, communications chair of 38Agree for GA puts it, “This week, the vote comes to the Georgia Assembly for ratification and Georgia can make history for all women. So let the Lieutenant Governor know you support measure SR66.” (And if you want to go the extra mile, you can also let the leadership in the Senate and the members of the Judiciary Committee know you are in favor of SR66 by going to www.ga.gov and emailing them there.)
It’s time, don’t you think?
Later this month, the National Portrait Gallery opens an exhibition celebrating the accomplishments of the brave women who put their lives on the line for a right that is still denied women in some countries — the right to vote. This week and all this month, we will be celebrating women’s history.
Georgia can make history by being the final state to ratify the ERA. My hope is that Georgia lawmakers will make it possible to also celebrate that all women in the US have equality under the law — equality guaranteed by the document that is the touchstone of our democracy.