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New Era for the ERA? 35 Years Later, Will Equal Rights Amendment Finally Be Ratified?

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Activists and lawmakers testified last week before a House Judiciary subcommittee in the first congressional hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment in more than 35 years. The constitutional amendment was approved by Congress in 1972 and was ratified by 35 states over the next decade—three states short of the required total needed by a 1982 deadline. Nevada and Illinois have since ratified the amendment. A bill by Representative Jackie Speier would eliminate the 1982 deadline, leaving the ERA just one state away from becoming a part of the U.S. Constitution. We speak with co-presidents and CEOs of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality, Carol Jenkins and Jessica Neuwirth. Neuwirth is also the author of the book “Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Those are the words of the Equal Rights Amendment, which may be heading toward ratification decades after it was first considered by the American public following a powerful hearing on Capitol Hill last week. Activists and lawmakers testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee in the first congressional hearings on the ERA in more than 35 years. The constitutional amendment was approved by Congress in 1972 and was ratified by 35 states over the next decade—three states short of the required total needed by a 1982 deadline. Nevada and Illinois have since ratified the amendment. A bill by Congressmember Jackie Speier would eliminate the 1982 deadline, leaving the ERA just one state away from becoming a part of the U.S. Constitution. This is actor and activist Patricia Arquette speaking at the hearing.

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: Why didn’t women achieve full constitutional equality in 1787 or 1982? Because the country wasn’t ready? Well, I hope you’re ready now, because women have been waiting 232 years for equality in this country, and it’s failed them. Legislators have blocked the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment for decades. But we’re done waiting.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by the co-presidents and CEOs of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality, Carol Jenkins and Jessica Neuwirth. Jessica Neuwirth is also the author of the book Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.

Carol Jenkins and Jessica Neuwirth, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Carol, let’s begin with you. What is it that you see could happen in 2019, 2020, that hasn’t happened in U.S. history?

CAROL JENKINS: Well, two things. The coalition is now working on two ways forward to the ERA being ratified. One is, we need the 38th state. We think we’re very close to that. We got as far as 37-and-a-half states. Virginia’s Senate passed it; the House denied it. So we call that getting as close as you can get without getting there. We think Virginia will be the next possibility for us, as well. There’s an election in November, and if they manage to turn the state blue, they could take up the ERA again in January. So we’re just that close. The other states, 13 unratified states, all working for that.

The reason that we were in the Judiciary Committee last week was to get Jackie Speier’s bill marked up and voted on, and that would be the removal of the deadline completely, which is a barrier to the conversation—not necessarily a barrier to ratification, but to the conversation about the Equal Rights Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Neuwirth, you have been organizing and writing about this for decades. Explain the history of the Equal Rights Amendment, especially for young people who may have no idea what this is all about.

JESSICA NEUWIRTH: Well, I was in college when the 1982 deadline passed, so I wasn’t an active part, actually, of the first wave of ERA activism in the 1970s. But really it goes all the way back to 1923, right after women got the right to vote in 1920, and Alice Paul and others drafted the Equal Rights Amendment. It was introduced in 1923, finally passed in 1972. I think there’s just a long history of movement. And it came so close—even in 1982, just three states. And if you talk to people who were active then, it was literally just a handful of votes in a couple of states that made the difference.

So, now, with the power of social media and all of these new young women and men who have grown up really in a different culture, where I think this is not only a no-brainer, it’s just absurd to them that we don’t have constitutional equality, which is also true around the world. I think people look at us, and they just don’t understand why we wouldn’t have this basic provision in our Constitution, which almost every other constitution has.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me go to the testimony, the hearing that took place last week. I want to go to the House Judiciary Committee hearing. In her opening remarks, Kathleen Sullivan said the U.S. Constitution is exceptional in not including a gender equality clause.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN: The United States Constitution, the world’s oldest written constitution, is also the only major written constitution in the world that lacks a provision declaring that men and women are equal. And now is the chance to correct that omission, that stain, that embarrassment about our Constitution, through the ratification by just one more state of the 1972 amendment. Just to give some examples, the French constitution provides that the law guarantees to the women in all spheres rights equal to those of men. The German constitution provides that men and women have equal rights, and that nobody shall be prejudiced or favored because of their sex. The constitution of India provides that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of sex. And every written constitution promulgated since World War II contains a sex equality provision.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it possible that the ERA hasn’t been passed, Carol Jenkins? Talk about that history. And what polls do you have showing how many Americans, what percentage of Americans, support this?

CAROL JENKINS: Well, the research that we’ve done indicates that 94% of all Americans, of every color, political persuasion, age, support equality—constitutional equality—for women. The problem is that 80% of those people think that we already have it. They cannot believe that in the United States we do not have this in our Constitution. So I think that it has been a long journey, almost a hundred years, if we get this, since Alice Paul introduced it in 1923, that we’ve been on this march towards equality.

AMY GOODMAN: What states are you focusing on, if it’s just one state away?

CAROL JENKINS: If it’s just one state away, we’re looking at Virginia. Louisiana has a possibility, Arizona. They all say—and we put it in the terms of there is the math and there’s the magic. You know, the math, in many instances, is against us just by a little bit or by a lot. But magically, what could happen if a person who has not supported the ERA suddenly wakes up and says, “You know, it’s time for this to happen. It’s just unconscionable that the Constitution of the United States does not include women.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about intersectionality and the ERA, the importance of African-American leadership around the ERA?

CAROL JENKINS: Well, we are at this moment because of women of color, because of black women. Pat Spearman, in 2017, magically got Nevada to ratify the ERA. And those of us who had been working on this for years looked at each other, and we said, “Does this count?” And our legal people said, “Yes, it does count.” And then, the next year, Illinois did the same thing, extraordinarily. Juliana Stratton, who’s now the lieutenant governor there, was a powerful voice in the Illinois House to make sure that the ERA got passed. And now in Virginia, we have several black women who are in the forefront, including Jennifer McClellan in the Senate, Jennifer Carroll Foy, who was the chief sponsor in the House of Delegates. And remember, we came so close. That was shockingly close, one vote away from the ERA.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Neuwirth, how does the ERA address transgender discrimination?

JESSICA NEUWIRTH: Well, the ERA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. And right now, actually, the Supreme Court has a case—has taken a case and will decide what that word means and whether it includes transgender.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to 1976. This is Good Morning America hosting a debate between Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan on the Equal Rights Amendment. This is conservative activist Schlafly, who was at the time the chairwoman of the ”STOP ERA” campaign.

PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY: The ERA is a big attack on the rights of the homemaker. The laws of every state make it the obligation of the husband to support his wife, to provide her with a home, to support their minor children. The woman in the home can draw Social Security benefits based on her husband’s earnings, even though she’s been a homemaker all her life. Now all these things will be lost when you apply a rule that says that everything must be equal. Now, until you can make it equal for men to have the babies just like women, then it is a double burden to the women to say that the rules for family support should be equal on the husband and the wife. ERA ends up in taking away the right of the wife to be supported by her husband.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Phyllis Schlafly. You’re smiling right now.


AMY GOODMAN: The conservative activist who tried to and successfully stopped the ERA.

CAROL JENKINS: Yes, the good old days. Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But that’s what someone is going to have to say if they’re going to say no to it today. Talk about why you feel it is critical today. And even talk about your own story. You’re a famous newscaster. You’re a journalist. The lack of pay equity?

CAROL JENKINS: Well, precisely. When people say to us, “Why would you need the Equal Rights Amendment?” I say, “Look at our country.” Who are the poor people in our country? It’s the women in this country, families headed by women who cannot feed their children, cannot find homes. They’re homeless. They’re impoverished. Corporations have made billions and billions of dollars by paying women less than they pay men. It’s a good business strategy, but it’s a very poor strategy for equality in this country. So we cannot go on diminishing the rights of women in the United States. How many years have we done this, you know, Pay Equity Day? It’s so infuriating. It doesn’t change, you know? Women—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Pay Equity Day.

CAROL JENKINS: Well, pay equity is—

AMY GOODMAN: We just passed it.

CAROL JENKINS: Right. It’s the amount of time—the date at which, in the next year, a woman or a woman of color, a black woman, Latina woman, would equalize what a white man made the year before. For Latina women, it’s November. I mean, that is almost a full year of working before she matches that income. It’s a disgrace. And so, we think that pay equity, that eligibility to recourse in sexual and domestic abuse, pregnancy discrimination, these are all things that would be affected by the ERA.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Neuwirth, how are you moving forward on this right now? What’s the actual organizing going on, on the ground? And what would change? I mean, Carol was just describing pay disparities. What would it mean to have this amendment in the Constitution?

JESSICA NEUWIRTH: Well, just one example. Phyllis Schlafly talked about women who are in the home. More and more women are in the workforce, and there are some women who never could afford to be in the home. And one of the many reasons we need the ERA, as Carol mentioned, is pregnancy discrimination. There are women who are getting fired every day because they’re taking too many bathroom breaks while they’re pregnant. I mean, they have no effective legal recourse. So, I think the ERA would give women in areas like pregnancy discrimination, gender-based violence, recourse that they’ve been denied in many, many cases, and continue to be denied.

And at the same time, I think i’s really important for us, at a higher level, to put in the foundational document of our country and in the bedrock of law that women are equal, and to finally send out the message that we’re no longer going to be treated as second-class citizens. And in terms of organizing, it’s been an explosion across the country. I think what we see is this groundswell.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to happen first? We have 30 seconds.

JESSICA NEUWIRTH: So, what has to happen is we need the committee, the Judiciary Committee, to do a markup and a vote. We need the House and the Senate to remove the deadline. And we need one more state.

AMY GOODMAN: But the Senate is Republican. Would they approve it?

JESSICA NEUWIRTH: Well, we’re just two votes away, we think, from a majority in the Senate, which is what we need, just two more Republicans. And I think we’ll get there.

CAROL JENKINS: Senator Cardin and Lisa Murkowski are sponsoring the bill to remove the deadline in the Senate. Susan Collins has signed on. So, you know, we’re working on Republican support as a bipartisan issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this. Carol Jenkins, Jessica Neuwirth, co-presidents of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality. Jessica Neuwirth also author of Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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