Proposed nearly a century ago, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is periodically propelled forward with a new burst of enthusiasm and a flurry of footwork.
Suffragist and lawyer Alice Paul, who was born about a dozen miles east of Philadelphia in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, introduced the ERA in 1923 to guarantee women equal rights under federal law. Many thought it quickly would become the 20th Amendment — right after the 19th, which had secured women's right to vote in 1920. But it was only in the early ‘70s that the ERA mustered the required backing of two-thirds of Congress to move it toward the states for ratification.
Then the National Organization for Women fanned out across the country, passionately advocating for the ERA's passage in the states. But when the clock ran out, only 35 of the 38 states required had signed on.
Activists: The ERA's time is now
Today's political climate and the #MeToo movement have added renewed urgency. Within the past three years Nevada, Illinois and Virginia became the 36th, 37th and 38th states to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, but it must surmount additional legal hurdles before it can be added to the U.S. Constitution.
"It's hard to get equal rights when you don't have equal rights,” says Julie C. Suk, a dean and professor of sociology at the City University of New York.
If the amendment does become enshrined in the Constitution, the ERA would require states to intervene in cases of gender violence, guard against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and motherhood, and provide a federal guarantee of equal pay.
In general, women make 79 cents to a man's dollar, and women of color take home even less. Women who are pushed out of work while they are pregnant have no legal protections, Suk says, noting that only 17 percent of American workers have access to paid parental leave.
Updating the Constitution is the only fail-safe way to root out legal gender-based discrimination, she and others assert.
A brief timeline of the ERA
• 1923. Suffragist Alice Paul writes the original Equal Rights Amendment, which is introduced in Congress.
• 1923 to 1970. A version of the ERA is introduced in every two-year session of Congress but gets held up in committee.
• 1970. Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-Mich., forces the proposed constitutional amendment out of committee with a discharge petition signed by a majority of House members.
• 1971. Griffiths reintroduces the proposal as House Joint Resolution 208. After months of wrangling the House approves it Oct. 12.
• 1972. The Senate approves the identical wording March 22, and the ERA goes to state legislatures with a seven-year deadline for ratification.
• 1978. Congress extends the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982.
• 1982. Deadline passes with only 35 of 38 states having ratified the measure; some states decide to take back their approval.
• 2017. Both houses of the Nevada legislature vote to ratify the ERA 35 years after the congressional deadline, setting the stage for ratification in 2018 in Illinois and 2020 in Virginia.
Source: National Archives
"Many people do not realize women have no guaranteed equal rights under the U.S. Constitution,” says Illinois state Sen. Iris Y. Martinez, a Democrat from Chicago and an ERA backer. “As a woman, I see this as a timeless issue."
7-year ratification window, then 10
The 92nd Congress, which passed the ERA in 1972, did not see it that way. Lawmakers gave state legislatures seven years to ratify the amendment, later extending the deadline to 10 years, but no additional states approved it after 1979.
Five states — Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee — ratified the ERA but later rescinded their ratifications, although it's not known whether a legislature can undo its ratification of a pending amendment. The 14th Amendment entitling citizens to due process and equal protections was ratified in 1868 with votes from states that later sought to back out.
Current members of the House and Senate are working to have the 1982 deadline removed, reasoning that if Congress had the power to extend the ratification deadline, it also has the ability to remove it altogether. Some point to the 27th Amendment, which founding father James Madison proposed to regulate congressional salaries. It took more 200 years to be ratified.
In mid-February, House Democrats and five Republicans passed a largely symbolic resolution to dispense with the long-passed ERA ratification deadline. In the upper chamber, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) are sponsoring their own bipartisan resolution to get the ERA back on track, but neither measure is likely to get floor time in the Senate because of lack of support from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).