A couple of months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the Veteran Feminists of America, held this year at the Women’s Museum in Dallas. (If you’ve never been, then you owe yourself a visit.) In attendance were such wondrous folks as Gloria Steinem and Sissy Farenthold and the Observer‘s very own Ruth Pennebaker, who received a lifetime achievement award for her writing. It was a rousing day, filled with activism and general rowdiness. Many fine things were said–including this great theory that Gloria Steinem put forward. She believes it takes 150 years for a social movement to fully achieve its goal–which means that movements are multi-generational campaigns, filled with peaks and valleys, lulls and climaxes.
And then, she talked about the ERA. Now, I have to admit that, at first, I thought, “The ERA?” Haven’t we been there, done that? Is the ERA still relevant? Haven’t we accomplished what the ERA was meant to accomplish in other ways? Also, the ERA seems so enormous. Not to mention, expensive. And couldn’t we devote our energies to other, more immediately realizable goals, that might prove more effective than a constitutional amendment?
Because, I don’t know if you know this or not, but even though the ERA passed both houses of Congress, and was ratified by 35 states (falling just three states shy of success), it’s likely a legal dead-letter anyway, because it didn’t make its ratification deadline. And so, at least according to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we’d have to start ALL OVER AGAIN!!! Even though NO constitutional amendment has ever had to work under such a tight deadline before (seven years, with a three year extension), and the last successful amendment (the 27th) took 203 YEARS to pass!
But then, I was reminded of what we’re really talking about here, folks. Here’s the amendment:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
And hell, who’s not for that? I mean, I’d think that, by this day and age, even most of the lunatic fringe would sign on for that. I mean, I’d hope to God that by this point, we’re beyond idiot conversations about unisex bathrooms, which, UNBELIEVABLY, is what the conversation about gender equality devolved into last time around. (Just like the conversation about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell seems to be devolving into idiot conversations about shower stalls.) I mean, if you were arriving here from another planet, and someone read you the ERA, wouldn’t you think, “What’s the big deal?”
Just like, if you arrived here from another planet, and somebody told you that women comprise just 17% of the US Congress, or that American women earn 58-78 cents (depending on their race) to every dollar a white American man earns, then you’d dismiss references to “post-feminism” as hogwash.
And then you’d, most likely, agree that the ERA is as necessary as ever. And you’d also conclude that, rather than being dead, the campaign for the ERA is merely in a lull, as Steinem suggested.
The necessity of the ERA has only been strengthened in my mind by a series of conversations I’ve had with the divine Zoe Nicholson (of http://www.onlinewithzoe.typepad.com/), a tireless activist who’s devoted a great deal of her life to the ERA.
In fact, Zoe was even one of seven women who FASTED FOR 37 DAYS for the passage of the ERA back in 1982. She wrote an incredible book about the experience, called The Hungry Heart, which I highly recommend. (You can buy it right here: http://www.lunesoleilpress.com/the-hungry-heart-a-womans-fast-for-justice.html)
Anyway, as Zoe told me, when the foundations of a house are unstable, then the whole house is unstable. And women are not explicitly included in the foundational document of American life–the US Constitution.
Aside from the gender gap in income, this lack of fundamental inclusion in American democracy is realized in many other important ways. Notably, health insurance. As Zoe Nicholson pointed out to me, the women of America are getting totally screwed when it comes to health insurance–this is the case today, and it was the case in the 70s and 80s. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that a great deal of the anti-ERA money was supplied by health insurance companies, who were terrified that the ERA would make the gender gap in insurance premiums unconstitutional.
In 2008, a fancy-pants New York Times article on this gender gap included the following quote:
“Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group that has examined hundreds of individual policies, said: “The wide variation in premiums could not possibly be justified by actuarial principles. We should not tolerate women having to pay more for health insurance, just as we do not tolerate the practice of using race as a factor in setting rates.”
(You can find that article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/us/30insure.html?pagewanted=1)
Lord only knows how (or if) the new health care legislation will impact this situation. And, of course, there are tons more areas, like employment discrimination, in which women face similarly unjust treatment. Without an ERA, each of these injustices will have to be addressed piecemeal–a thought that makes the ERA look like a quick fix.
The good news is that there are many good folks like Zoe Nicholson who’re mounting a new ERA campaign. LIke Susan Guggenheim, a Pennsylvania activist, who has refused to serve on a jury until the ERA is ratified.
(Here’s a blog about that: http://womenofthejury.blogspot.com/)
And NY Representative Carolyn Maloney, who reintroduced ERA legislation in the House this year.
You know, friends, women’s suffrage experienced a similar lull in the late nineteenth-century. Stanton and Anthony made the tedious slog to Congress year after year, with nobody paying them any mind–before Alice Paul, and a whole new generation of suffrage workers joined the fray, and made it happen.
I think that’s where we are with the ERA. I think it’s time for a new generation to step forward, and finally make gender equality happen.