June 23, 2004
On June 30, we should have a moment of silence.
On this day in 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment died. Unable to overcome the lies and distortions of its opponents, it failed to win ratification by the 38 states necessary.
Conservatives bombarded the ERA as if it were the devil incarnate. It would lead to unisex toilets, they said. Women would fight in combat alongside men. And homosexuals would want to marry.
In hindsight, it's laughable.
Women in combat? Jessica Lynch and other brave young women have settled that issue.
Gay marriage? Destroying the ERA certainly didn't derail that movement.
Fear of unisex toilets was always my favorite. I grew up with five brothers and sisters and learned at an early age that if you want privacy, lock the door.
But such laughter must be tinged with sorrow.
It's sad that anyone would feel threatened by 24 simple words in the U.S. Constitution stating: "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 fight for the ERA had its origins in the 19th century.
It was at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, that women issued a "Declaration of Sentiments," including these hallowed words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government."
Sound familiar? It should. Except for the phrase "and women," it's lifted straight from the Declaration of Independence.
By 1920, women had won the right to vote, but they were still not equal under the law.
In 1923, feminist and suffragette Alice Paul authored the first Equal Rights Amendment.
It wasn't until 1972, during the height of the women's movement, that the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives and approved the Equal Rights Amendment. To become part of the U.S. Constitution, it needed to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Within one year, 30 states had approved the ERA, and the amendment seemed destined for success. But opponents, such as Phyllis Schlafly's National Committee to Stop the ERA, launched a campaign that pitted the amendment against motherhood, the family and the Bible.
By the middle of the decade, the ERA was in trouble.
When Indiana became the 35th state to ratify in 1977, many still hoped it would not be the last. With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, however, it was clear the conservative counterrevolution was in command. Breaking with moderate Republicans and former presidents such as Richard Nixon, Reagan opposed the ERA.
Congress had set a June 30, 1982, deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. When that day arrived, it was still three states short. The promise of the ERA passed into history.
Someday this country will realize, however belatedly, that if the Constitution is to mean anything, it must explicitly affirm the rights of all. Perhaps in the 21st century we will finally enact a new ERA and redeem the promise of equality.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist who frequently writes on women's issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.