Its been almost seven score and 19 years since Abraham Lincoln reminded those gathered to dedicate the national cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19,1863, that the United States was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Of those 14 words from that iconic address, we still seem to struggle with two of those words: “men” and “equal.”
Thankfully, Merriam-Webster provides a definition for each. “Men,” of course is plural for “man,” which in this context means “an individual human; the human race; mankind.” The Google dictionary further clarifies “man” as “a human being of either sex; a person.” As for “equal,” it is defined as “like for each member of a group, class or society; one that is equal; to be equal to.”
Well that sounds simple enough. So why, since the U.S. Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment on March 22, 1972, and the amendment was sent to the states for ratification, has the 28th Amendment not been added to the U.S. Constitution?
Today is National Womens Equality Day, observed on Aug. 26 each year since 1973. But as far as our Constitution is concerned, women are not equal.
Oklahoma and Arkansas agree with that inequality. The two states, as well as every state in the Deep South, are among the 12 states that refuse to ratify the amendment.
And who‚s surprised? For years, Oklahoma has ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every national report involving womens equality, in general, and the gender pay gap, in particular. The only consolation Okies have is that Arkansas often ranks even worse.
Those opposed to the amendment âÂ€Â” a foundation of conservative activists allied with the religious right âÂ€Â” argued that the measure would lead to gender-neutral bathrooms, samesex marriage and women in military combat, among other things. Since those objections have already come to pass without the amendment, why the pushback?
After all, in the four decades since Congress first proposed the ERA, courts and legislatures have realized much of what the amendment was designed to accomplish and what opponents feared would occur with its ratification. A significant portion of the credit goes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was the founding director of the ACLU Womens Rights Project.
If that‚s the case, why is the ERA still necessary? Harvard professor Jane Mansbridge has an answer: “It‚s the principle of having it in the Constitution, like other principles that are foundational to what we are as a people.”
As written, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment is a pretty simple idea. Alice Paul, an American Quaker suffragist, first introduced the ERA to Congress in 1923. She rewrote the
Staff Writer text in 1943, and the language remains to this day: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
But discrimination continued. Until 1974, banks made it tough for women to get credit cards. Until 1978, being pregnant could get you fired. And veiled discrimination continues today in its many forms.
America is still a patriarchal society that places men at the highest roles – family, communities, businesses, spiritual organizations. Surely such a society is on the precipice with women daring to seek elected office as governor, congressional representative, senator or, God forbid, president.
So what was God‚s divine intent for women? The way 18th Century Nonconformist minister Matthew Henry sees it, God made woman equal to man. In his sixvolume biblical commentary, “Exposition of the Old and New Testaments,” an exhaustive verse-by-verse study of the Bible, Henry observes: “ The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”
So if Henry‚s interpretation of God‚s divine plan is correct, why would the religious right oppose the ERA? Is it just too improbable that God‚s intent was for women to be equal to man?
Yet, the Equal Rights Amendment is still not the law of the land.
After decades waiting for ratification by the states, the ERA came back into prominence around the time of the #MeToo movement in 2018. Proponents argue that while the Constitution does not directly discriminate on the basis of sex, it does not protect against it.
“We are the only country with a written constitution that does not prohibit discrimination based on sex,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said during a House floor debate in March 2021 about the Congressionally imposed 1982 deadline for ratification by 38 states. “Shame on us. There can be no expiration date on equality.”
So that‚s the hang-up. When the amendment passed in 1972, Congress stipulated that threefourths of the states had to ratify the amendment by 1979. That deadline was then extended to 1982. Thirty states jumped on that bandwagon early on. Five more stragglers came around. But then it wasn‚t until 2017 that two more states signed on. Virginia finally joined the party in 2020 as the 38th state.
But on Jan. 8, 2020, the Justice Department‚s Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion arguing that the deadline set by Congress is binding and that the ERA “is no longer pending before the states,” although some legal scholars contend that “states did not vote for the timeline, states voted for the text of the ERA,” therefore, “the timeline is definitely not binding on Congress.”
When there has been doubt over the validity of an amendment, Congress has acted to declare it valid. This occurred most recently in 1992 when the states ratified the 27th Amendment âÂ€Â” which outlaws varying compensation for Senators and Representatives âÂ€Â” 203 years after Congress proposed it.
In March 2021, the House voted to extend a deadline for ratifying the amendment, which would formally ban discrimination on the basis of sex and has lingered in a state of limbo for decades.
When the amendment is finally added to the Constitution, that will surely be what Neil Armstrong âÂ€Â” using Merriam- Webster‚s definition of mankind âÂ€Â” described as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”