Betty Ford’s Death: A Renewed Call for an ERA

With the recent death of Betty Ford, who was a constant proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), I am reminded that women have come so far since the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in 1923, and even since opponent Phyllis Scahfly hosted “The Rainbow Dinner” on June 30th 1982 to celebrate the expiration of the time extension for the ERA.

Today women make up 57% of college graduates, almost half of the workforce, and in the same week Jill Abramson became the first female New York Times executive editor and Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz became the first woman to lead a US military service academy.

And yet we earn less, are still having to march for the right not to be blamed for our own rapes, and despite the fact that 82% of Americans agree that government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women, we do not even have equal rights under our very own constitution.

Misconceptions around this issue abound. According to

“An Opinion Research Corporation poll commissioned in 2001 by the ERA Campaign Network of Princeton, NJ shows that nearly all U.S. adults – 96% – believe that male and female citizens should have equal rights. The vast majority – 88% – also believe that the U.S. Constitution should make it clear that these rights are supposed to be equal. However, nearly three-quarters of the respondents – 72% – mistakenly assume that the Constitution already includes such a guarantee.”

In a January interview Justice Antonin Scalia cleared up this mistaken belief 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.”

Recently several politicians have reignited the push to ratify the ERA, which would make sex discrimination (male and female) a classification protected by the highest level of strict judicial review. As it stands, race discrimination requires “strict scrutiny” by the courts while sex discrimination, such as the recent Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit, now only requires “skeptical scrutiny”. Women are still bearing the burden of proving that we have rights.

Some opponents of the ERA claim that it would impact reproductive rights, eliminate “traditional benefits in the law for wives” and push a leftist agenda.

However, in the states that do have an ERA it does not affect how they rule on reproductive rights. Pennsylvania has a state ERA, yet, the state Supreme Court decided that restrictions on Medicaid funding of abortions were constitutional.

Moreover, as more and more women have been forced to pay alimony-finding out the hard way that the laws that supposedly protected “traditional benefits”, such as spousal support, are often now applied to men as well. One divorce attorney called this trend the “dark side of the liberation coin.” But just because family law has adopted gender-neutral terms are women truly liberated when we do not have equal protection under the constitution?

Jessica Valenti recently wrote in the Washington Post:

“Established feminist groups have had tremendous success organizing feminist action in recent years. The 2004 March for Women’s Lives… brought out more than 1 million people protesting President George W. Bush’s anti-woman, anti-choice policies. It was an incredible event, but the momentum of the protest largely stopped when the march did.”

Well, maybe it stopped because there was not a clear place to put that momentum. There are so many issues splitting the cause that ultimately is based on the tenet of equal rights under the law. Coming together to force politicians to discuss the ERA ratification is the perfect place to put aside our smaller disagreements and finally get the protection under the constitution that we all deserve.

This column first appeared in Huffington Post Women