An Era of ERA

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

–proposed Constitutional Amendment

era 0120The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a some month if not august body politic with a 401-year history, has made a lot of history already this legislative session. For starters, for the first time in four centuries women occupy the roles of speaker of the House (she is also the first Jewish person to hold that title) and president pro tempore of the Senate (also the first African-American).

Forty-five percent of the Democrats in the House are women. This body has its first Muslim member and two “Indian Americans,” which I assume means having ancestors from the country of India. For the first time in “years” (whatever that means), Democrats are the majority party in both chambers, as well as the governor’s office.

And because of all this, one of the first things this july body did in 2020 was ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the threshold 38th state to do so. Sort of.

When I was a freshman in high school, which means waaaay back in 1976 or ’77, I recall sitting in the front of my English class, arguing with fellow students about the rightness of approving the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

I don’t remember how many of us were debating this, or who any of my opponents or allies were. This was not a formal debate or even an official class activity, and what I mostly recall are two things. One, the teacher’s input was that she was impressed that those of us discussing it were so politically aware — she said she had no idea of current events when she was our age. Two, the chief argument against passage of this simple amendment — which still seems to be the same chief argument — was that men and women would be forced to share bathrooms. Just like they do at home.

I also recall a parade from my youth, probably for Cattlemen’s Days, where my mom, Mrs. Baril and other members of the League of Women Voters dressed up as flappers and marched down Main Street with a banner noting, “In 1920, women won the right to VOTE.”

And now I learn that an Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923 which, if we’re doing math, was 97 years ago. It failed, obviously, as it did every single session of Congress until 1972, when semi-august lawmakers finally put forth enough votes to send it out to the states for ratification. To amend the Constitution requires approval from three-fourths of all states. If we do more math, a 50-state membership requires approval from 38.

On Jan. 15, 2020, Virginia became that 38th state. So timely and simple, huh?

Well, no. There is a great deal of discussion taking place regarding whether 48-year-old legislation is still viable, and whether the five states that once voted to ratify this amendment but then later took it back still count, and in the middle of this the national archivist is being sued (an attempt to keep him from registering the amendment) . . . it really doesn’t seem like this should be so complicated.

The chief sponsor of the legislation in the Virginia House, a woman named Jennifer Caroll Foy, introduced this by noting her state’s multiple failures on civil rights issues, from saying yes to slavery to no on school integration and interracial marriage.

Protections on all those issues are now written into law, if not the Constitution. One of the arguments against enshrining equal rights, alongside the really frivolous but apparently still terrifying notion of shared bathrooms (which is not mandated anywhere in the text that I can see) is that women already have all the equal rights they are ever likely to need.

My response then becomes: So what would the harm be of codifying it? Plus, there’s the part where I really don’t believe that to be true. Sometime last year I read that female artists receive some very low percentage — I want to say 11 — of the airtime from country music radio stations. And not only are the Oscar nominations once again lily white, all of the “best” directors turn out to be men. As comedian Trevor Noah noted in an uncomedic moment, even the films these five men presided over have barely any room for women, with perhaps 10 minutes’ appearance total. Total.

Let’s go back to Virginia, and note that it has only taken 400 years, plus one, for a woman to lead the House. And while her party in that chamber is almost but not quite 50 percent women, the overall total, still a record, is 30 percent women. Here in Gunnison we have gone backward, from a high of one female county commissioner to none (everyone who has run in the last two elections has been male), and two women city councilors down to one (again, no women ran). In one council race with several female candidates, we had the possibility of an all-woman council (across a broad political spectrum, too) — and ended up with one woman and four men.

It’s not just politics and entertainment. It’s board rooms and businesses, everything STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), law enforcement, the military . . . place upon place where half the population is not represented by half the participants.

So it seems as though a fear of sharing bathrooms (which we do at the Firebrand every weekend, and which people do in “family” restrooms, and when parents take their young children of the opposite sex in with them, or one spouse assists another, or even in your very own home) should not really be a reason to hinder this long overdue request for equality.

I know there are other fears, and perhaps the utter simplicity of the text could cause it to be the source of endless litigation. But then again, what isn’t the source of endless litigation? Does it really, really, seem so very difficult to put into law that women should have the same rights men do? (And note, the amendment would protect men too, in areas such as custody cases that frequently tend to favor mothers.)

Apparently so. But welcome Virginia, to the party. Among those in the gallery to witness this historic moment was one of Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, and a woman who wore the same purple sash she wore almost half a century ago when she first marched for women’s rights. It is well past time to let this woman retire her sash with pride.


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