By Alyson Weiss, Field Intern
Last month, I participated in a time-honored tradition amongst the feminist community: I attended a rally supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA, first drafted by Alice Paul in 1923, is a constitutional amendment that simply 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.”
The ERA passed through Congress in 1972, but fell three states short of ratification before its expiration date. It has been introduced into Congress every year since, and every year women’s groups like NOW congregate on Capitol Hill. This year’s primary sponsor is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
On June 30, a few of us interns teamed up with United for Equality to lobby senators to support the three-state initiative, a movement that would eliminate the expiration date and allow pro-ERA groups to simply gain the support of three more states rather than starting over.
Participating in both the rally and the lobbying made me think more deeply about what the ERA means to me and why it is still important. Many have questioned why an amendment is necessary when our rights have traditionally been protected in the courts by the privacy clause in the Fourth Amendment or under the 14th Amendment (even though the 14th Amendment specifically excludes women). There are very solid reasons for this: Sex discrimination cases are not currently held to strict scrutiny, as racial discrimination cases are, and this has led to unfavorable rulings in recent landmark cases, such as Ledbetter v. Goodyear and Wal-Mart v. Dukes. Justice Scalia even outright said that the U.S. Constitution does not protect women.
But the reasons go deeper than that. The Constitution forms the backbone of this country. It influences culture by encouraging freedom of speech no matter what you have to say, freedom of religion, and many other rights people hold dear. So the reverberations of constitutional inequality between the sexes surely must be felt in the culture.
I remember the first time I noticed sex discrimination. I was 10 or 11 and played on a coed soccer team in the least competitive league in the world, called Fun Fair Positive Soccer. I had a blast and was actually pretty good, but the boys would never pass to me. I was lucky enough to have my father as a coach, and he would tirelessly try to prove the error of the boys’ ways by setting up boys versus girls scrimmages during which the girls repeatedly creamed the boys. Strangely enough, it never changed anything. Even though we proved ourselves against them week after week, the passes still never came. And though it was nice to have the element of surprise on my side (imagine the look of shock on the other team’s face when this unusually short girl scored the goals!), it was still tiring trying to convince my own team of my worth.
That was also the era of the tomboy–a time when it was hip to love blue and sports and mud but not cool to be too girly. It was a strange era of Spice Girl-induced girl power that involved at least partially denying your girlhood. We were allowed to be strong and competitive as long as we didn’t wear too many dresses or cry too much.
As I got older, I started noticing sex discrimination in other areas of my life. I noticed that actresses of a certain age had to dye their hair and get plastic surgery just to play roles opposite men their same age. I noticed that my words did not have the same ability to move my friends from my first year dorm to the dining hall as my male friends’ did and that professors seemed to hear my male colleagues more than me when we said similar things. I noticed that my peers seemed to put more blame on me than my male partners for failed relationships. I noticed my female friends were experiencing more unwanted sexual advances than my male friends.
I’m not saying that ratifying the ERA would magically make all of these discrepancies disappear. The 14th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination, was ratified in 1868, and I think we can all agree that we have a long way to go before we reach racial equality. But even so, laws are important components of creating cultural change. Our government officials are leaders of this country, and they set an example and a precedent for us to follow. Society will never see sexual equality as important until they do. And until that happens, the ball may never be passed to us.