Action Alert

“Persons of Equal Stature”: Sex-Equality and the States

“Persons of Equal Stature”: Sex-Equality and the States
A United Methodist Women rally in Nashville on International Women’s Day in 2013.

“If I could choose an amendment to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment… So I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, when they see that notion — that women and men are persons of equal stature — I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.” – Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The struggle for the institutionalization of equal rights between women and men in America is one that traces back more than a century ago. Recall that it was only in 1920 that suffrage rights were guaranteed to women throughout the United States with the adoption of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Now, as we stand five years away from the centennial celebration of that historic ruling, we must not only reflect upon the progress made, but also all that remains to be achieved. Despite the significant gains in access and mobility that have been made by women over the years, gender-based inequalities still plague our society in the 21st century.

It’s hard to believe that at a point in history where women hold a record 5.2 percent of CEO jobs at Fortune 500 companies and female representation in our nation’s Congress is at its height, women still do not receive equal compensation to men for doing the same job. In fact, American women on average make 78 cents to every dollar made by their male counterparts. That’s 22 cents less than a man just because the sex you were born happens to be female. According to the Equal Rights Center, women are 60 percent more likely to have to make a higher down payment on a home than men. These inequities existing as the status quo of our modern society are unacceptable.

It is imperative that national comprehensive legislation is enacted to make sure the wage gap and other gender-based inequities are eliminated. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a piece of legislation that has been seeking to do just that since it was first proposed in 1923 by the founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), Alice Paul. The ERA has three basic sections that stipulate:

  1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
  2. Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
  3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The NWP along with supporters of women’s equal rights have sought to get the amendment added to the Constitution since 1923, and although Congress adopted it in 1972, the ERA has never gained the support of two thirds of the State legislatures in order to be ratified as a Constitutional amendment. Only three additional states were needed to ratify the amendment in 1982, but those votes never came.

The Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations in 1978 and is commonly referred to as the international “Bill of Rights” for women. Under CEDAW, discrimination is defined as: "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field." The Convention is the only human rights treaty that affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. The United States remains one of the very few industrialized nations in the world that has yet to ratify CEDAW. This is an embarrassment to all Americans, men and women alike, and underscores the necessity for the nation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

The ERA in State Constitutions

Recently, the state of Oregon passed Measure 89, which ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to their state constitution, making Oregon the 23rd state to adopt the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for women in its state boundaries. This action not only benefits the state of Oregon and the fight to combat gender-based inequality, but counters arguments by those who are wary of the new amendment. David Fidanque, Director of the Oregon ACLU, has spoken out against adding the ERA amendment to the state constitution. His position is that since Oregon already has laws ensuring equal treatment of everyone, regardless of sex, the ratification of the ERA may “encourage the Oregon Supreme Court to weaken its interpretation of the current amendment, reducing protection for groups other than women, such as homosexuals and people with physical or mental disabilities.” Mr. Fidanque’s concerns have been refuted by former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz, who insists the ERA “will acknowledge the contributions and importance of more than 50 percent of our citizens by providing women express recognition in our state’s most important document.”

The shocking fact is that several states still have not ratified the ERA in their constitutions. Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina are some of the states that have not enshrined the principle of equality for both men and women in their constitutions. On the other hand, there are a number of states like Maine, New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia that have sanctioned the ERA in their respective jurisdictions. Despite the momentum gaining behind the national push for the ratification of the ERA to the U.S. Constitution, some say that it is still an uphill battle. Deeply contested social issues, such as reproductive rights, childcare and education all have strong implications in the amendment. “The meaning of sex equality is still up for grabs… the passage of a few decades and dynamics in Oregon have not changed that stubborn fact,” states Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School. A federal ERA amendment has been introduced in every Congressional session since 1982, but has yet to be ratified.

There are currently two primary approaches Congress is considering to seek ratification for the amendment. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) have sponsored the “three-state” approach, which would repeal the ratification deadline and add the ERA to the Constitution when three more U.S. states ratify it. The second and less popular approach among ERA advocates is the “fresh start” strategy. Backed by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the fresh start approach would start the process over with a new resolution and no ratification deadline. Jacqueline Nantier, of the organization We are Woman stated, “If you look at the demographics of the South, to start over again would basically put us back 50 years.” However, the “three state” strategy is not without its concerns, as five states have already rescinded their ERA ratifications since 1970 and to reengage that strategy would likely result in lengthy legal disputes.

Nonetheless, advocates of women’s equal rights welcome the legal challenges, stating that a major hindrance to getting the ERA ratified is that most people believe that women already have been ensured their equal rights under the law. While there are laws and statues guaranteeing U.S. citizens the equal protection under the law, discrimination due to race, gender, age and religion still take place. ERA supporters and advocates say that the legal challenges that may arise from pursuing the “three state” strategy will help put the debate of sex-equality back on the national agenda. "That would give incredible momentum to the three-state strategy and of course raise awareness about the Equal Rights Amendment in general," says Bettina Hager, deputy director of the ERA Coalition.

Equal Rights and Human Trafficking

January 11 marks the annual National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. In 2014 President Barack Obama declared January to be Human Trafficking Prevention month and stated, “We cannot strengthen global efforts to end modern slavery without first accepting the responsibility to prevent, identify, and aggressively combat this crime at home.” Promoting equal rights for women not only works to dismantle the international framework of human trafficking, but also does much to prevent violence against women, according to an international study released by the World Health Organization. Respecting women as equals is the first step and prerequisite to changing sexist practices and norms that have been ingrained in so many of our societies for far too long. The battle to guarantee the equitable treatment of women wages on but still faces significant hurdles, and that is why we need your help. Please join us in our fight for women’s equality.

Posted or updated: 1/9/2015 11:00:00 PM
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Suggested Pages:

*Gender Justice

*Human Trafficking

Take Action:

  • Contact your Congressional Representative (Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to support ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) through the ”three states” option. Also, push your lawmakers to support ratification of the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Let’s continue the fight for women’s equal rights and hold this nation to its creed of liberty and justice for all.
  • Learn more about the Equal Rights Amendment by viewing the PowerPoint presentation created by the National Council on Women’s Organizations in conjunction with the Alice Paul Institute.
  • Read “Every Barrier Down: Toward Full Embrace of All Women in Church and Society” #3442, pages 494–502, and “The Status of Women” #3444, pages 504–511, in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).
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