ERA Now?

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A couple of months ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Veteran Feminists of America at the Women’s Museum in Dallas, a deco dream of a building in Fair Park. I knew I’d be surrounded by wondrous women like Gloria Steinem, Texas political pioneer Sissy Farenthold, and the Observer’s own Ruth Pennebaker, who received a lifetime achievement award for all-around feminist fabulousness. I was sure it would be a rousing day filled with rowdy talk. I hadn’t expected a particularly fine speech by Steinem about the importance of passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

At first, I thought: the ERA? Again? I mean, sure, there’s still a lot of work to do, but is a constitutional amendment really the best plan of action? Steinem put me straight on that. While we have come a long way, baby, since the Mad Men years, the facts speak for themselves: American women still earn, on average, less than 60 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. Women—American and Texan—still pay more for health care. According to a 2008 New York Times article, “in Dallas or Houston, women ages 25 to 29 pay 39 percent more than men of the same age when they buy coverage from the Texas Health Insurance Risk Pool.” While these numbers are appalling, they only hint at the fundamental problem: the exclusion of women from the U.S. Constitution.

Though women have made astounding legal gains over the past 50 years, they’ve made them largely by taking advantage of laws not crafted to address gender-based discrimination. For instance, the Civil Rights Acts and the 14th Amendment, however marvelous, were written primarily to prevent race-based discrimination. In practice, the result is that every time a woman wishes to bring a fresh legal challenge to discrimination against her, she must make the case that laws written to prevent racism apply to her situation. This is as true today as it was during the ’70s and early ’80s, during the last major push for the ERA, which was passed out of Congress in 1972 and ratified by 35 (Texas included) of the 38 necessary states. The biggest difference between now and then is the relative complacency with which we consider women’s lack of legal protection.

While at the Dallas Women’s Museum, I had the chance to observe annals and artifacts of Feminism’s Second Wave, which came so close to that landmark victory. A documentary called Sisters of ’77 provided an inspiring reminder of a far more activist era. It tells the story of the National Women’s Conference in Houston in November 1977—the first and only time the American government has sponsored a conference on women’s rights. Some 20,000 attended from every state in the union. During four exhilarating, exhausting days, the conference debated and voted on 26 resolutions on subjects ranging from the ERA to child care. In one scene of Sisters of ’77, future Texas Gov. Ann Richards recalls how the late Congresswoman Bella Abzug asked her to deliver the ERA resolution: “I like you, Texas,” Abzug said. “Why don’t you introduce the Equal Rights Amendment on the floor?” It’s moving to see the young, swaggering Richards of 1977, hands tucked languorously in her pockets a la James Dean, standing before the microphone to say, “I rise on behalf of those few [women] who are fortunate enough to be in [elected office], but I [also] rise on behalf of those who are speechless and voiceless.”

Before adjournment of the Dallas meeting, a committee was formed to work on implementing the conference goals. Many of them still haven’t been realized. In the final moments of Sisters of ’77, the late, great Liz Carpenter says: “When I die, don’t send me flowers, send me three more states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.” If that isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is.

During the last couple of months, there have been suggestions that the ERA campaign is reawakening. Feminist attorney Gloria Allred is in the midst of a 90-day fast for the ERA. Pennsylvania activist Susan Guggenheim is urging women to refuse jury duty until the ERA is ratified. A group called United for Equality has organized a rally and candlelight walk to the White House on Aug. 26. It seems that the ice is beginning to thaw. I think we owe it to the memory of Ann and Bella to carry on with the work of equality—and I’m pretty sure that Liz will haunt us until we do.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.