The Past and Future of the ERA

Presented to the Champaign County Business and Professional Women's Club - 2000

I still want the ERA. There is still great inequality in pay, promotions, the amount of work that women as a group do, our power, authority, the positions we hold. We have less influence on the destiny of our communities, states, nations, the world. Laws, especially constitutional law, set the standards, norms, values of the nation. The Constitution embodies the core values of our society, and as a woman I want equality of rights. So tonight I will talk about the past and future of the ERA -- the history of the amendment, why it has not been added to the Constitution and what we might do to see that it is, for ourselves, our daughters, granddaughters, great granddaughters and for all women.

Currently, there is a small movement of women who are working to get the ERA added to the Constitution, and they are pursuing two strategies. Some are challenging the Congressionally legislated deadline of June 30, 1982 which killed the ERA. Only 35 of the 38 states needed to ratify had done so by the deadline. The challengers are using the 27th amendment as a precedent and arguing that all we need to do is get 3 more states. The 27th is the last amendment added and stipulates that any pay raise passed by Congress for members of Congress will not go into effect until after the next Congress is elected. It was first proposed in 1789 by James Madison along with the ten amendments that became the Bill of Rights. This one failed to be ratified, but because it included no deadline it finally got the necessary 38 state ratifications in 1992 and was added to the Constitution. Presumably ERA proponents will have to challenge the constitutionality of the deadline for this to be effective and all amendments passed since the early 20th century have included deadlines in their language. Despite the obstacles several groups are pursuing the strategy.

ERA Summit is a coalition of groups that have targeted 5 states where they are going to try to get state legislatures to ratify. They are planning to introduce a bill in the Missouri legislature on December 1. Other states targeted are Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia. The National Council of Women's Organizations just formed a new ERA task force that will meet in Washington DC in November to discuss strategy. It includes the national YWCA, American Association of University Women and others.

The largest feminist organization/ the National Organization for Women, is not supporting this strategy. The group fears that it will involve costly and probably unsuccessful litigation before the Supreme Court. Instead they are working to get more women who support ERA elected to Congress and state legislatures. I think there is merit in this approach and the numbers of women elected to legislative bodies are growing steadily Currently, there are 1652 state legislators (22.3% of the total), 56 women in the US. House of Representatives (13%) and 9 senators (9%). The number of women elected has tripled in the last 10 years or so. I firmly believe that regardless of what strategies we adopt, we are doomed to fail unless we learn from the past and have a deep understanding of the conditions and obstacles to success in the present.