Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment rallied outside the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on the first day of the 2019 General Assembly session in January. (Photo: Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury)
The U.S. House on Thursday passed a measure to resuscitate the 1923 Equal Rights Amendment by repealing a long-expired congressional deadline for state ratification.
The resolution aims to ensure the ratification a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights regardless of sex. Proponents of the ERA hailed the vote as historic, but the effort to add the amendment to the Constitution still faces legal and political hurdles.
Nevada’s House delegation split along party lines on the vote. Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford voted to approve the resolution; Republican Rep. Mark Amodei voted against it. The House passed the measure by a vote of 232-183, with the support of five Republicans.
Amodei’s office declined to comment on his vote against the resolution.
For the women representing Nevada in Congress, the issue is personal.
Titus said while the number of women represented in government is growing, politics itself is an “old boys game.”
When she was first elected, an elder statesman patted her on the knee and said, “leave that to the boys,” she recalled in an interview this week with the Nevada Current.
“Of course, I didn’t,” she said. And while Nevada has a “good record” on gender equity, she said, “times change, individuals change, administrations change, so it’s good to have it in the Constitution.”
While the ERA was introduced almost a century ago, it languished in Congress until the early 1970s when it was passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate. The first missed deadline for state ratification was March 1979. Lawmakers extended that to 1982, which also expired.
On January 15, Virginia, led by a newly-Democratic General Assembly, became the 38th state to ratify the would-be 28th constitutional amendment, after Illinois in 2018 and Nevada in 2017, reaching the requisite threshold of states.
Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen called that an incredible milestone in advancing women’s rights.
“Now that Virginia has joined Nevada and thirty six other states in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, the amendment must be allowed to take effect,” she said in an email.
But even if Congress manages to repeal the deadline, the amendment will face an uphill battle.
The Trump administration has ruled that a proposed amendment cannot be resuscitated after a deadline has expired. The Office of Legal Counsel determined in January that Congress would be required to propose a new amendment and start the process over from the beginning.
House Republicans who oppose the measure warned that even liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested recently that she believes the 1982 deadline should be considered binding. “I would like to see a new beginning” for ERA ratification, she said in an interview.
‘Still arguing about the same nonsense’
Titus thinks starting over would be a mistake.
“So much time, effort, money, blood, sweat, and tears have gone into getting it this far. Let’s just get it over the line,” she said.
“The president is trying to weigh in and say time is up, but the executive branch has no role [in amendment ratification], so whatever he says is irrelevant.”
The attorneys general for Virginia, Illinois and Nevada, the last three states to ratify, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the national archivist in an effort to compel him to “carry out his statutory duty of recognizing the complete and final adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment,” the lawsuit says.
But the National Archives and Records Administration has refused, citing the Justice Department’s ruling.
Additionally, five states — Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Dakota — have rescinded their ratification, though there is precedent for ratifying an amendment even after states have withdrawn. And late last year, three states — Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota — filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Alabama arguing that the deadline had expired.
Shelley Berkley, who was the first woman to serve her Nevada district in Congress and held the position from 1998 to 2013, said it’s high time this “common sense” amendment was enshrined in the Constitution.
“There are millions of women in this country that are still discriminated against on the basis of gender and that ought to be eliminated,” she told the Current in an interview.
In the early 1970s, Berkley was interning on Capitol Hill for then-Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) when the ERA was first “all the rage,” she said.
“Everybody was talking about it. All the opponents were talking about having to share bathrooms, and how horrible this would be for women because they wouldn’t be held on their pedestals and all that nonsense,” she said.
Since Berkley had never seen the language of the ERA, she asked the senator’s office if she could have a copy. “And the next morning it was on my desk. It was about two sentences. I went to my supervisor and said they must have given me the wrong thing.”
When Berkley learned the two sentence-long amendment was not a mistake, she realized “this was a fight about nothing,” she said.
“That was 1973. It’s now 2020, and we are still arguing about the same nonsense.”
Nevada is fairly progressive when it comes to employing women, Berkley said, but her state has a high percentage of single women who are working full time while raising families.
“Their need for a good paycheck is no different from any man,” she said.
While the rate of unemployment is lower for women in Nevada than the national average, they earn relatively low wages and are in the second-lowest percentage for women in professional and managerial positions, according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
One of the greatest barriers for women in Nevada is access to health insurance. Women in Nevada have the highest national rates of death from lung cancer and suicide, the report found.
Titus noted that the ERA also serves to protect LGBTQ individuals with varying gender identities and sexual orientations. She also noted the measure has played into the abortion debate.
While opponents of the ERA were worried about bathrooms and traditional gender roles in the 1970s, conservative activists now argue that any efforts to restrict access to abortions could be considered unconstitutional under the ERA.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed that argument on the House floor on Thursday, calling it an “excuse” for those who oppose the ERA. “This has nothing to do with the abortion issue,” Pelosi said.
But Titus said it could help women who want to ensure the constitutional right to abortions.
“For those who want to take away a woman’s right to choose, this might give us another arrow in the quiver to fight that,” she said.
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