Nearly Century-Old Fight on Equal Rights Amendment Faces House Vote

WASHINGTON (CN) — Aiming to include an explicit bar against sex discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, the House will vote Thursday on whether to nix the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier of California, the resolution H.R. 79 marks the latest turn of the wheel in a decades-long campaign driven largely by Democrats and advocates of women’s rights.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., joined from left by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other congressional Democrats, holds up a copy of the Constitution during a Wednesday event about their resolution to remove the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“We want in. We want into the Constitution of the United States of America,” Speier said at a press conference Wednesday alongside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus and other lawmakers including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

The deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, expired in 1982, but Virginia finally triggered the majority threshold of states needed to amend the Constitution last month as the 38th state to do so.

Speier’s resolution is expected to vault through the House Thursday, but it will likely face a much harder path forward in the Senate where Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Feb. 5 that he will not support it.

In the Senate, Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin has co-sponsored mirror legislation to Speier’s resolution known as S.J. Res 6. Cardin was optimistic that existing bipartisan support, including support from Republican Senators Lisa Murkoswki of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, would elevate the resolution to final passage in the Senate.

Speier on Wednesday acknowledged the looming barriers but said getting the resolution through the House sends a necessary message: Women no longer accept being paid less or discriminated against for their pregnancies,  being assaulted and violated “with impunity,” or disparaged and demeaned by people who purport to protect their rights.

“That includes those in the highest office in the land,” Speier said.

The language of the ERA is simple enough. It proposes that equality of rights under the law “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The concept was introduced to Congress formally in 1923 by suffragist and head of the National Women’s Party Alice Paul. But year after year, the ERA, or some variation of it, failed to launch out of committee.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, began issuing calls for the House to adopt the ERA in 1969, but it would be another year until Martha Griffiths, the first woman to serve on the House Committee on Ways and Means, forced the issue with a bit of shrewd procedural work.

Griffiths filed something known as a discharge petition. When legislation is moldering in committee, a discharge petition can force a bill to the House floor for a full vote so long as it has the signatures of a majority of House members.

Griffiths got the majority she needed to discharge the amendment, and it finally passed in the House in 1971. The Senate approved it a year later but included a provision that gave states just seven years to ratify or see the amendment die on the vine.

Though the ERA enjoyed significant popular support, opposition was fiercely galvanized and led by the late attorney and self-proclaimed housewife Phyllis Schlafly, known to many in conservative circles as the “First Lady of the Conservative Movement.”

Schafly’s “Stop ERA” campaign hinged on the argument that the amendment makes no distinction between men and women, hurts women’s rights, promotes gay marriage and harms unborn children because, as she argued, it can be used as means to bypass state abortion restrictions.

The Eagle Forum, which Schafly founded, posits the same theories today.

A representative did not immediately return request for comment.

If Speier’s resolution passes, it would go into to effect within two years.

Another H.R. 79 co-sponsor, Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday that without ERA’s ratification, it would be impossible for women to gain the representation they rightfully deserve.

“There’s an old saying, women hold up half the sky, and I would say that is an understatement,” she quipped before noting more seriously that without ratification women would never be able to enforce equal pay for equal work.

For now, the ERA is beset by potential legal complications that could waylay final ratification and perhaps bring the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After Virginia passed the amendment last month, David Ferriero, chief archivist for the United States, refused to certify and adopt the amendment into the Constitution. His refusal was driven by a Department of Justice opinion that said Congress does not have the authority to relaunch an amendment after the deadline to pass it has come and gone.

This prompted Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to sue Ferriero last month in Washington.

Arguing first that the 1982 deadline is not binding because the language on deadlines was only included in the resolution’s preamble and not its text, the attorneys general asserted, too, that Ferriero, in his capacity as archivist, serves in a ministerial role. It is not his job to decide what is certified to the Constitution or not, they said.

The deadline argument is null as well because nowhere in the Constitution does it stipulate that Congress has the authority to set state time limits for amendment ratification. The 27th Amendment, which was added in 1992 and limits how lawmakers give themselves raises, took over 200 years to be ratified by 38 states.

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