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National NOW Times >> Winter, 2001 >> Article

Viewpoint - An Evolving Concept of Equality Benefits Us All

by Patricia Ireland

At the World March of Women protest in Washington, D.C., we were reminded of three internationally-accepted principles the Kensington Welfare Rights Union cites in its Economic Human Rights Campaign:

• Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
• Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him[/her]self and of his[/her] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services . . .
• Everyone has the right to education . . .
These principles were ratified in 1948 as Articles 23, 25 and 26 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

The Limits of the Law
The Declaration reminds us of the limits of our own Bill of Rights, which does not recognize any economic rights, and of the nature and limits of law.

Ultimately, law must reflect a widespread agreement among those to whom it applies. This is most clearly seen in enforcement of international law, which is essentially limited to economic sanctions and war.

Agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—ratified by 165 countries, but still under contention in the United States—must have a genuine global consensus and commitment to have any real effect.

While domestic law also depends on a consensus, even the agreement of the majority cannot always justify a law. That's why we have a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, to protect against the tyranny of the majority. That's also why our movement has fought so hard and so long to add equality for women to the Constitution, to guard against the constant ebb and flow of political opinion.

However, even the Constitution cannot really guarantee equality without some general agreement among the people of this country. Widespread resistence to a high court decision on constitutional rights can make the decision unenforceable, short of calling out the troops. And that is why the role NOW plays as a leader of public opinion is so critically important.

Ultimately, we did not make the progress we have made in this country—we did not end slavery or win the right to vote, first for African American men and then for all women—because of a few good men on the Court, in the White House or in Congress, but because we had strong movements that demanded change. It is popular support for that demand which we must build and foster.

ERA Dialogue Continues
One of many benefits of the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment from 1972 to 1982, came from the ten-year national dialogue, especially intense during the final few years, about what equality for women would mean. Although a source of great debate, advocates argued, based on its legislative history, that the ERA then before the country did not guarantee the right to either abortion or equality without regard to sexual orientation.

Over the course of the nearly two decades since the end of the ERA Countdown Campaign, the concept of equality for women embraced by NOW has grown. Chapter delegates to the national conference in 1994 voted to confirm NOW’s belief that: A concept of equality that does not include reproductive rights is not equality for all women. A concept of equality that excludes the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender or any other people who transgress the stereotypical boundaries of their gender...a concept of equality that overlooks economic guarantees...a concept of equality that does not strengthen the 14th amendment's prohibition of discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, age and not equality for all women.

That 1994 resolution reflects both principle and pragmatism. The majority voted to stand up for what women really need, understanding that we're not going to get a two-thirds majority to pass even a narrow Equal Rights Amendment out of the current or any readily foreseeable Congress anyway.

If by electing not to advance a more inclusive, broad-based concept of equality, we cannot pick up the votes we need to win, what do we have to lose by articulating as consistently and persuasively as we can our dream of true equality for women, and by doing so, move public opinion and eventually public policy our way?

And if by advocating for constitutional equality that includes all women, do we not gain the additional strength of numbers from the abortion rights, civil rights, disability rights, poor people's and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights movements?

NOW Pursues Constitutional Equality
At this year's national NOW conference, chapter delegates considered two resolutions dealing with strategies to win constitutional equality for women. The debate was passionate and, for the most part, respectful. The resulting resolution confirms NOW's expanded understanding of equality and commitment to a constitutional amendment reflecting that concept, while also allowing activists to work in NOW's name on the so-called Madison strategy for ratification by three more states of the Equal Rights Amendment as it was voted out of Congress in 1972.

That amendment was ratified by 35 states prior to the August 1982 deadline that had been set and extended by Congress. The Madison strategy envisions winning ratification by three more states to reach 38, the number required for adoption. This is based on the adoption of the Madison amendment, originally introduced in 1789 without a time limit and added to the constitution 203 years later in 1992.

Although some remained unhappy with the result, the resolution adopted in Miami Beach provoked energetic discussion and allows activists on both sides to pursue that discussion and their work for constitutional equality in NOW's name, inside and outside the organization.

In the final analysis, all of our organizing and advocacy for equality, all of the public debate and visibility we can generate helps us to change the culture and improve women's lives through and beyond law and politics.

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