In Our View: Equality of Rights

It's past time for the law of the United States to live up to nation's ideals



Given the vociferous debate the issue has spawned over the past nine decades or so, it is likely that few Americans are familiar with the simple eloquence of the Equal Rights Amendment.

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Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

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That's it. The complete amendment. In its entirety. Those are 58 words originally written in 1923 by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, with nary a "whereas" statement or a "party of the first part."

Yet despite its simplicity, the Equal Rights Amendment has long been a political football. After a half-century of discussion, it was passed by both houses of Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for consideration. The initial ratification period was set at seven years and eventually extended to 1982. By the time that deadline passed, 35 states (including Washington and Oregon) had ratified the federal ERA, falling short of the 38 states necessary for it to be added as a Constitutional amendment.

Now, a movement to revive the amendment is afoot, with two pieces of legislation in Congress and with rallies taking place in support of the issue. That also has rekindled opposition to the ERA, which makes this an appropriate time to repeat exactly what the proposal says: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

That idea is difficult to disparage. In a nation based upon freedom and equality, the notion that such equality could be contingent upon a person's gender should be viewed as anathema. But for too long and in too many situations, inequality has trumped equality. Until the mid-1800s in the United States, women could not inherit property or keep their own income. Until 1920, they could not vote.

Now, although there have been advancements in women's rights, any suggestion that equality has been achieved or that the ERA is unnecessary is to naively ignore a long history of gender discrimination. It is to ignore that the nation was founded on the premise that "all men are created equal." It is to pretend that we are more evolved than reality would indicate. In 1776, Abigail Adams, wife of Founding Father John Adams, wrote in a letter to her husband, "And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."

Sound advice, and the fact that we are still debating its wisdom is rather absurd. Opponents of the ERA in the past have trotted out arguments that the Constitutional amendment would actually limit rights for women; that it could be used to support gay marriage (a rather outdated argument at this point); and that it would ignore traditional differences between men and women. In other words, opponents have managed to read all kinds of fabrications between the lines of what the document actually says.

Instead, the Equal Rights Amendment says that men and women should have equal rights, and that Congress is empowered to ensure those rights. It is time for the United States' laws to live up to the nation's ideals.