A recent editorial in the New York Times suggests that the time for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment–long comatose (actually, I thought it was dead)–may finally be at hand.
The editorial begins with a recognition of the Trump Administration’s negative consequences, especially for women:
Having a sexist in the Oval Office who curries favor with conservative religious groups is having dire consequences. Health workers in developing nations are preparing for a rise in unsafe abortions due to President Trump’s reinstatement of the global gag rulethat prohibits federal funding of groups that provide abortion services or referrals. Here at home, his administration has been hostilenot only to abortion access, but even to birth control.
A full list of the “Trump Effect” would be much longer, of course; it is a mistake to put “women’s issues” in some sort of separate category limited to matters of reproduction and discrimination. Women’s issues are human issues, and vice-versa–the damage this administration is doing to policies ranging from the environment to poverty to international relations affects all genders, just as family planning and child care policies affect men as well as women.
That said, the daily assaults have generated a monumental resistance.
Rage at the election of a man who boasted about grabbing women’s genitals helped set off the #MeToo movement’s reckoning with sexual misconduct. A record number of women are running for office around the country, many of them announcing their candidacies after participating in women’s marches the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
And now, on Mr. Trump’s watch, feminists could reach a goal nearly a century in the making, and that many assumed would never come to pass — ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. It states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
What prompts this possibility? Evidently, the Illinois State Senate recently passed a bill to ratify the E.R.A. If the Illinois House passes the same legislation (supporters are cautiously optimistic) — then Illinois will become the 37th state to ratify the amendment.
Just one additional state would be needed, and the long-languishing amendment would become part of the Constitution. Maybe.
Thirty-five states had signed on by 1977, ahead of the 1982 deadline established by Congress. Extensive–one might say hysterical– conservative opposition then arose, preventing further ratification. Virtually nothing happened after that, until Nevada suddenly ratified it last year.
There are some questions about what will happen if a 38th state ratifies the amendment, given that it would miss the deadline Congress set by at least 36 years, and five states have even voted to rescind their ratifications. But E.R.A. supporters and some legal experts make a plausible case that the amendment should still be recognized, pointing to, among other things, the 27th Amendment, on congressional pay, which was ratified more than 200 years after its passage by Congress, although no deadline had been set.
If the ERA were to be ratified, I’m not sure what it would do. As the editorial notes, there is a substantial body of 14th Amendment jurisprudence that protects the equal rights of women.
The fight against the E.R.A. is being led by groups on the religious right like the Illinois Family Institute, using arguments that are the ideological heirs of those so vociferously expressed by Phyllis Schlafly, whose group Stop E.R.A. — the first word standing for “Stop Taking Our Privileges” — which became the Eagle Forum, prevented the E.R.A.’s ratification at the time.
Those arguments include fearmongering about how coed locker rooms could become standard and alimony for women outlawed — arguments that are hard to take seriously but that nonetheless helped Mrs. Schlafly to very effectively convince Americans, including many women, that the E.R.A. was bad news. (Mrs. Schlafly, who died in 2016, would no doubt be appalled that her home state, Illinois, could now play such a pivotal role in ratification.)
Another conservative talking point is that the E.R.A. would lead to abortion restrictions being struck down. That outcome is not at all certain, but it would help many women. (For obvious reasons, the anti-E.R.A. crowd already had to slink away from an argument that the amendment would lead to legalizing same-sex marriage.)
Do we still need the ERA? Case law can be overturned; a constitutional amendment cannot–at least, not easily. Ratification would add an extra layer of protection against discrimination for both men and women . Given the appalling people that are being placed on the federal bench by Trump and the GOP, that’s no small matter. And of course, as the editorial pointed out, “This could become especially important if Mr. Trump gets to pick additional conservative Supreme Court justices.”