Not long ago, presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Julián Castro and Joe Biden spoke of the urgency of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment on the debate stage. Why now, you might ask? Because it’s time the ERA gets the attention it deserves. But many of you may be wondering, what exactly would the ERA do? Put simply, it would finally include women in our Constitution, making us equal to men under the eyes of the law.
Since our country’s founding, women have been left out of the Constitution — intentionally. We were second-class citizens deprived of the right to vote, take on most jobs and careers, or own property. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled that married women had the right to access contraception. It wasn’t until 1974 that single women won the right to qualify for credit cards, though women still pay half a point higher in interest rates than men. And it took the Supreme Court until 1975 to strike down a ban against women serving on juries.
The fight for those hard-fought victories began in 1923, when the ERA was first introduced by Alice Paul. It’s been reintroduced in every Congress since and includes a few simple but powerful words — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
When Congress passed the ERA in 1972 with overwhelming bipartisan support, it sent it to the states to ratify within an arbitrary deadline of seven years. That deadline was extended an additional two years and 35 of the necessary 38 states ratified the ERA. Recently, Nevada and Illinois have joined those ranks. That leaves us just one state shy of 38 states and several, including Virginia, are on the cusp of making this a reality.
My legislation would remove that arbitrary deadline from the preamble of the original Constitutional amendment to make the ERA a reality. Women’s rights are under siege each and every day. The only way to completely protect them is by making them bedrock in the Constitution.
If you don’t believe me, consider Christy Brzonkala, who was raped by two football players at Virginia Tech. After her school let her perpetrators off the hook with a slap on the wrist, she filed suit against them in federal court under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Congress included this provision in part because it recognized that schools, law enforcement and state courts traditionally failed to defend the rights of survivors. But when the Supreme Court in 2000 declared unconstitutional the civil remedy provision of VAWA, it stripped Brzonkala — and so many other survivors — of the ability to seek civil justice. The ERA, however, would give Congress the authority it needs to enforce women’s equality.
Some argue that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution is sufficient. The problem is that the 14th Amendment was adopted to address racial segregation and discrimination. Courts often treat discrimination based on race and sex differently, adopting a higher level of scrutiny when evaluating whether racial discrimination fulfills an important government purpose. Adoption of the ERA would help ensure that sex discrimination benefits from this same strict scrutiny.
If you’re still questioning the value of the ERA, look no further than the immortal words of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It does not.”
Or ask yourself, if we can be violated with impunity, paid less for our work and discriminated against simply for being who we are — how can we be equal?
When you take in the view of the Supreme Court of the United States there is a magnificent statue of a woman called the Contemplation of Justice. And atop the marble edifice are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” The time for contemplation is over. It’s time that we receive justice with the ERA now!
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, represents the 14th district in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she is the co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.