This picture was taken at a press conference for new bills introduced into Congress and Senate for The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the 40th anniversary on March 22, 2012 of the March 22, 1972 passage of the ERA through Congress. I was so inspired by this program that I decided to create a series of posts dedicated to the ERA’s past, present, and future. In the first post I gave some background information on the equal rights amendment, in next post I outlined my personal journey from knowing nothing about the ERA, to reading From Housewife to Heretic, to becoming a National Council for Women’s Organizations Mormons for ERA Activist! This final post will be dedicated to the future of the ERA, why it is so important and what you can do. Check out the official ERA website for more information: www.equalrightsamendment.org *Caveat: All quotes are taken from my rapidly written notes from March 22, 2012 and any mistakes in their translation and reproduction are entirely mine.
“Did you know that women die in car accidents 30% more than men? Why? Because safety and seat belt studies are conducted on male bodies.” This is how Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) began her remarks at the “Forty Years of ERA” program last March. I was taking notes and looked up after she began. While my eyes were glued to her magnetic presence in the front of the room that screamed “capable, capable, capable” as if from a glowing neon sign, my thoughts drifted to my own body. About how I purposefully scoot my seat as far forward as it can go so I feel more in control when I drive, about how my seat belt digs into my collar bone and I sneak it underneath my armpit to avoid the discomfort, about how my body did not seem to fit either the seat or the belt when it was large with child. These thoughts made me feel both flummoxed and angry at the same time. As a very safety conscious person I wondered how I did not know this before and whether I have been endangering myself or my daughter every time I drive.
Then Congresswoman Maloney continued, “It is a similar problem that we faced when we discovered that medications were tested on only male rats eve though we know they metabolize differently in females. It took a lot of effort, but we finally fought for gender equality in pharmaceutical research.” I was astounded again. These were not secondary issues these were the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of people all due to discrimination (conscious or not) against women in fields as varied as the automobile industry to the drug industry. Think about the new contraceptive debates, the 18 states that have different initiatives trying to roll back women’s health, the fight against the affordable health care act, the ridiculous positions against the Violence Against Women Act, the fight against Medicaid which disproportionately impacts women as they make up 70% of nursing home populations and how social security restrictions discriminate unfairly against women who work in the informal sector of motherhood. All of these issues are connected. They are just a few of the cases where women are not protected against discrimination under the law.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been arguing for protection against gender discrimination since 1923. If we had the ERA we would not have to individually fight all these little battles. “There are over 800 federal statutes that discriminate against women on the basis of sex, according to the United States Civil Rights Commission. If it takes 8 years to change 14 laws [Reagan brags about having changed 14 laws for women in the state of California during his two terms as governor], according to my arithmetic it would take 457 years to change 800 laws. We may be a patient people, but that is ridiculous” (Eleanor Smeal, National NOW times, Oct/Nov 1980). And that doesn’t even include all of the state discriminatory statutes! Moreover, most ERA proponents are worried that implementing the ERA now in the current political climate is not even moving forward, it is making sure we don’t go backwards!
Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) continued on this thought during the same program by arguing that “instead of fighting all of these one at a time we need a guarantee; a constitutional guarantee. Discrimination based on gender is NOT protected under the 14th amendment so we need this. Now. It’s our job to make it available to all now so that we can enjoy it and not just our grandkids.” When it comes down to enforcing and enacting the law women are not protected against discrimination regardless of some people’s interpretation of the 14th amendment. As Justice Scalia made clear when he said, “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box…Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about.”
As it stands, ERA ratification bills were introduced in the Senate (S.J. Res. 21) by lead sponsor Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and in the House of Representatives (H. J. Res. 69) by lead sponsor Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) on June 22, 2011. A few months earlier in March 2011 a resolution was introduced which would remove the ERA’s ratification deadline and make it part of the Constitution when three more states ratify (J. J. Res. 47) by Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and a companion bill (S. J. Res. 39) was introduced in the Senate by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). Speaking on the progress of these bills Senator Menedez (D- NJ) congratulated Representative Maloney as the best possible person to get the job done and explained that he already had 14 colleagues as co-sponsors and that those numbers were growing and they were speaking to members of the senate to continue this progress.
For all intents and purposes, Congresswoman Maloney might just be the woman who can get the job done after all of these years and she has stated that within her tenure this will be the battle she charges. But, she argues, she can’t do it alone. It is our own fault if it does not pass. “We are 52% of the population. It is our own fault. If we worked together it would pass” said Maloney. She continued, “We need to write to our Congresspeople to sponsor the bills, we need to educate, promulgate, petition, and join together.” Then Representative Maloney gave a list of specific things we can do to support and strengthen the ratification of the ERA:
1) Set aside 30 minutes a week strategizing to get senators as co-sponsors on the bills.
2) Make a list every week of a new outrage: publicly announcing a representative or senator who won’t sponsor the bill, legislation that goes against it, quotes that are discriminatory, etc. We do this for other things, why not ERA?
3) We need to be more demonstrative. Ask federal automobile safety to explain why there are no safety tests designed for women’s bodies. We need to hold press conferences and raise awareness when we discover cases of gender discrimination.
4) We need to find examples of the latest outrage and get it out there. Everyday there is discrimination against women and American women have a responsibility to make that happen. Other organizations have wielded power by exposing poor voting records or statements of discrimination and have done a lot of good by publicizing bad behavior- no one wants to be scored and it’s our duty to hold people accountable for their actions against women.
5) We should have a score card to rate all of the legislative happenings and score how each congressperson and senator does on their votes against women. Many organizations already do this. Why don’t we? No one wants to put anything to a vote and then be publicly responsible and have to defend to more than 50% of the population of why they voted against their interests. This is our duty to point out, to educate, and publicize.
6) Each of us needs to think about what we can do in our own lives. We know from studies that when women get equality there is better peace and prosperity for all. It’s up to the women. No one will do that for us and if we don’t win it and get equality in a privileged land it’s our own fault. What of those countries where women are worse off?
7) We need to bond with every group, add new sponsors, and ask America to go ask their congress people to pass this. It’s up to you!
8) Each one, reach one. Each group and each individual need to contact a congress person and senator. Divide them up and become responsible for the ones in your state. Then hound them. Letters, emails, and phone calls. Don’t make it easy for them to ignore such a huge issue. We need to get the vote onto the floor and show how different people vote so we know who to push further.
9) Ultimately we need more equal representation in decision making bodies, from government to education to business to religions. Women hold only 16.8%, of the 535 seats in the 112th US Congress, 17.0%, of the 100 seats in the Senate, 3/9 Supreme Court Judges and have never been in executive office in this country. Compared to the rest of the world, the United States rates 90th in the number of women in national legislature. Combine these statistics with disproportionate ratios in representation and decision making power in religions, media, business, health care and academia and it is no wonder that women’s interests are not being addressed.
Hearing all of these legislative leaders passionately discuss the ERA inspired me. It gave me hope and a determination to do whatever in my power to join the cause. I was there as a representative of Mormons for ERA, which right now is just a loosely organized group of like-minded Mormon feminists, but in that moment I was transformed into something more—a representative for the cause of women across the globe. The ERA, to me, means that women enjoy all of the same rights, privileges, liberties, freedoms and protections as men, not just in thought or word, but also under the penalty of law. It means that women are protected by something larger that civility, chivalry or honor, values which have failed women greatly throughout history. It means that women can rightfully expect to be treated fairly and when they are not they can pursue legal action with a chance or hope of winning. The ERA, to me, means not just the end of a long and tortuous battle against gender discrimination but the beginning of a world in which increased women’s representation changes global rates of war, scarcity, inequality and suffering.
The ERA ratification might happen in as few as two years. It might take another 23. But I am certain that within our lifetime this is an issue we will face which will radically change history. But it won’t be easy and if the history of the ERA has taught us anything, it won’t be fast. What will we do as women and, more importantly, what will we do as Mormons when that day comes? That is the point of this post. I want all of us to think and discuss: What will we do when the time comes? What is the best route to successful ratification? How can we be the most effective? How can we change erroneous opinions? How can we balance obedience to leaders with the obvious morality of legal protection against discrimination?
Representation Maloney urged us to think beyond religious binaries, “For too long women’s issues have been masked under the guise of religion. I’m religious and this is a very religious country. These issues are NOT religious. President Obama has made it clear that churches can have their own rules, but when they serve the public using federal money they need to follow federal rules. It is about money and yet these arguments invariably go after women’s rights. If we had the ERA many of these things couldn’t happened.”
Viewing the ERA outside of a religious lens and focusing on the humanistic and social justice realities of the resolutions, how can we understand what action to take in the future with the ERA as Mormons and what can we learn from the precedents established in the past? Fortuitously, this week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Newsroom, the official resource for new media, opinion leaders and the public came out with a statement under the title “Getting It Wrong” where they claimed “Neil J. Young, a Princeton professor, says the Church’s weighing in on the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s was ‘based on a revelation.’ This is incorrect. However, the Church reserves the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way and in accordance with its doctrine, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.”
This statement, the past ERA battle and the more recent controversy of Proposition 8 in California have taught us many things about church political action and member response. First, that the church’s political stances are not commandments or revelations, that we are officially allowed to have different opinions, and that we have been publicly encouraged to make sure these differences are expressed with civility and mutual respect. Second, that regardless of public official statements members will often engage in unofficial pressure tactics to encourage compliance with church opinions that range from judging one another’s worthiness to taking temple recommends and facing church disciplinary councils. We also know that some members take these matters to the extreme by discussing political issues in church meetings, using words bordering on hate speech and refusing to allow the space for variable opinions within a congregation. Third, we have found with the increasing public support of gay marriage by members that internal opposition to the church’s stance may appear years after the official church statement, long after most of the damage has been done. Fourth, we know that many church buildings, resources, time and money is devoted to the causes supported by the church and against any opposition. If the last ERA battle or Prop 8 has taught us anything it is that our leadership is not immune to the vagaries of politics. Finally, we also know that many members will equate the church’s stance with a moral issue of obedience to the brethren rather than the specifics of the legislation, so that it is near impossible to discuss the details of the ERA if people’s decision are based on the general value of loyalty over knowledge. In fact, many know very little beside the church’s position. Knowing these factors, what can we do as Mormons to prepare for the ratification of the ERA with the assumption that the church will maintain their original stance of opposition to it? What worked last time? How can we do things differently this time?
At the end of the “Forty Years of ERA” program I was motioned from the room by the chair of the ERA task force for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO). She brought me into a small room and told me that she had a present for me. I was completely surprised by her attention and generosity and waited with baited breath as she pulled out a large cloth banner from the ERA protests during the 1980’s. As she began to unroll the banenr my breath caught and I got teary eyed. It was a cream canvas with hand sewn forest green fabric letters which said, “E. R. A. Missionaries Are Everywhere.” I didn’t know quite what to say other than to close my hanging jaw and whisper, “Wow. Thank you.” Then she explained that this banner had been sitting in a NCWO headquarters and they didn’t know what to do with it. It was from a time when Sonia Johnson and the Mormons for ERA were major strategists and participants in the movement for ERA ratification and they sent women out two-by-two to go knock door-to-door and proselyte the cause of the ERA in unratified states using the Mormon missionary program as an example! Seeing and touching this sign was one of the most surreal moments of my life and it connected me to a line of sisters that extended back through the generations of Mormon Women past, present and future who worked for the rights and protection of women against discrimination, from our early suffragette sisters in Utah who fought for the right to vote to our battle-scarred sisters in the 70’s and 80’s who suffered through the last ERA battle to current and future Mormon feminists who are ready to take up the cause. This isn’t a quaint issue that our mother’s faced or even a controversial bipartisan argument. This is OUR civil rights movement; one that will not just be handed to us, one we have yet to demand, one that we have to fight. Let’s get started!