I know what you’re thinking: didn’t the Equal Rights Amendment pass in the 1970s, back when mood rings and love beads were popular? Why are we bringing this up now?
Because the ERA needed to be ratified by 38 states and as the years passed, the ERA fell three states short of ratification. Last March, Nevada ratified the ERA, leaving only two states to go. Illinois has a chance to be one of those two states this spring when the state legislature returns. That’s why.
The operative language of the ERA is only 24 words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It is a simple declaration that discrimination on the basis of gender is not allowed.
You might ask why, in this “progressive” era, we need the Equal Rights Amendment; don’t women already have equal rights? Certainly legislation has improved some situations for women since the 1970s. Yet there are substantial reasons to enact a Constitutional amendment even now. In Illinois, women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man for the same work. At the current rate of increase, they would not reach equal pay until 2065. Figures for pay inequity are worse for African American and Hispanic women. So despite some legislative and cultural changes, women still lag economically and an Equal Rights Amendment would state a guarantee of equal treatment.
Even more important, it would make equal rights indelible. Legislative changes have been a patchwork, potentially revocable by legislative whim or nullified by the courts. Moreover, the ERA would guarantee what the Supreme Court calls “strict scrutiny” of laws that could affect everyone on account of gender. Only when the Constitution has specifically prohibited discrimination by class, such as by race, has the Court applied this highest level of inquiry.
The lack of an Equal Rights Amendment allowed Justice Scalia, in 2010, to declare that the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. For that, he stated, “you have legislatures.” In other words, when sex discrimination occurs, you cannot seek redress based on the Constitution; instead you have to pass a law, and then pass another law, and then pass another law.
Without the Equal Rights Amendment, people will continue to suffer discrimination and have to fight long and expensive legal or political battles. This simple amendment has the power to change that trajectory. It is simply the right thing to do. The Illinois state constitution already guarantees equal protection; the legislature should take the simple step of ratifying the federal constitutional amendment that would do the same.
It’s time to do the right thing; it’s time to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Marge Massarello is president of the League of Women Voters of OP-RF.