Equal Rights Amendment: Why It’s More Important Today

Do you remember 1972?

Gasoline was 55 cents a gallon. A new home cost a little more than twice your average income, which was just shy of $12,000 a year. Rent was $65 a month. And the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification.

That was a real long time ago.

So we know what happened to a gallon of gas. It’s headed toward four bucks a gallon this summer.

But whatever happened to the ERA? Well, a lot. In any case, members of the Federally Employed Women (FEW) need to read carefully because this story will actually end with us.

“In order to understand the ‘why’ as it relates to the Equal Rights Amendment and its importance for women, you need to understand the journey of women as a class,” said Shabiki E.C. Clarke, who is FEW’s vice president for Congressional Relations. “It is impacted by the social, economic, political and moral components, which help to convey equality to women.”

The ERA is a proposal that would add gender and gender identity protections to the nation’s premier legal document, the U.S. Constitution. As written, the Constitution doesn’t mention “women” or “sex” (i.e. gender). Proposed language from section 1 of the ERA reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Some legal scholars believe women are already legally protected from legal discrimination based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment protects women from sex discrimination. However, others including the late Justice Antonin Scalia believe there isn’t any explicit guarantee of protection against discrimination in the Constitution.

Women endure many forms of discrimination ranging from civil rights to health care, but one of the most damaging is lack of access to capital.

And where to women receive most of their capital? The workplace.

The U.S Department of Labor recently published findings that would reinforce why ratification of the ERA is more important today than when it was originally passed by the Senate:

  1. Women Still Earn Less. In 2020, women’s annual earnings were 82.3% of men’s, although the gap is slowly improving. Women made 57 cents per dollar earned by men in 1973, when the Department of Labor started its research.
  2. There are too many ‘Equal Pay Days’ in a year. Based on 2020 earnings, a woman must work until March 24, 2021 to make the same amount of pay as a man did in 12 calendar months. But that’s not true for most women of color. A Black woman would have to work until August 3, while a Native American woman would have to work until September 8. Latinas would have to work until almost Halloween (Oct. 21).
  3. Advanced degrees widen the pay gap for women. Compared to white men with the same education, Black and Latina women with a bachelor’s degree have a 65% pay gap, while Black women with advanced degrees earn 70% of what white men with advanced degrees earn.
  4. Pandemic has set women back 30 years. A locked-down economy in 2020 hit women the hardest between layoffs and lack of childcare, forcing many mothers to leave the workforce. In fact, women’s labor participation rate fell to 55.8%—the same rate as April 1987. Women of color who worked in low-income jobs were greatly impacted. “When they come back to work, those women are not coming back at the same level,” Clarke said. “The only way this will change is if the ERA becomes law.”

The Road to Equal Rights

When the Senate passed the ERA in 1972, the legislation needed 38 states for ratification. Originally, it needed to be done within seven years, but advocates lobbied Congress to extend the deadline to 1982. Momentum began to fizzle. The second deadline passed three states short of the goal.

Recently, Nevada ratified the legislation in 2017 and Illinois followed suit in 2018. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify on January 27, 2020. However, a federal district judge has ruled that the deadline for ERA “expired long ago” and recent ratifications involving the three states arrived “too late to count.”

Despite the ruling, the movement continues to push forward. A bill to remove the ERA’s time limit, H.J. Res. 17, has passed through the House of Representatives by a 222-204 bipartisan vote.

Moving Forward: Actionable Items

Clarke said FEW members can help ratify the ERA with a little resolve on their own behalf.

“FEW members can support the passage of the ERA by having the complete knowledge of what was happening before the ERA came about,” she said.

For starters, members can review Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President L.B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 to amend the bill to now include federal government and civil services. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act helped necessitate the use of Affirmative Action policies in the hiring process, which increased the number of women and people of color in the workforce.

In addition, FEW chapters can lead monthly letter-writing campaigns at the local level of representation, followed by the annual Advocacy Day in early June. Members can begin by supporting H.J. Res. 17 in the House of Representatives and S.J. Res. 1 in the Senate, which would eliminate the ERA’s deadline.

Clarke said there is a percentage of women who are comfortable with the status quo, which ultimately could jeopardize ratification of the ERA. But FEW, bent on career advancement for its members, can help. “You might have to surround yourself with a team who will expose you,” said Clark who joined FEW three years ago and has been promoted twice recently. “You can find it if you want it.”