Cardin revives drive for equal rights for women in Constitution

Capital News Service

Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired Democratic lawmakers to re-introduce legislation that would ensure equal rights for women in the U.S. Constitution.

Days before participating in the Women’s March on Washington with several female family members, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., announced the re-introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“Twenty senators have joined me,” Cardin said. “We believe this is a good time to get this done…seeing the type of activities Mr. Trump has discussed in his campaign, it is important to have this type of protection.”

Designed to ensure equal rights for all people regardless of their sex, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first proposed in 1923 by suffragist leader Alice Paul shortly after the 19th Amendment was passed to guarantee women’s right to vote under the Constitution.

In 1972, Congress approved the amendment and set a seven-year ratification deadline. Thirty-eight states were needed to ratify the amendment. However, after an extension of the deadline to 1982, only 35 states—including Maryland—ratified it.

“It’s an important initiative…I wish this had passed a long time ago,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in an interview with Capital News Service. “(There is) a new urgency to get it passed.”

“The principle of equality regardless of gender is something that most Americans share,” said the senator, one of 25 Democrats co-sponsoring the Cardin measure. “It’s time to make good on that progress.”

Some states have not ratified the amendment in the past because they already have an Equal Rights Amendment in their state constitutions.

For example, Virginia has had an ERA in its constitution since 1971. The federal amendment has failed to clear the Virginia General Assembly each time it has been brought up.

Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., said that the reason the amendment has failed in part is due to the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly.

“Unfortunately, that political party does not advocate for ensuring that rights are provided equally to citizens,” McEachin said in an email. “I have done what I could, when I was there, to get the ERA passed in Virginia, including introducing and co-sponsoring ERA legislation. I wish my Republican former colleagues would recognize the importance of the ERA.”

McEachin said that, considering the country’s current political climate, “equal rights and representation are​ of the utmost importance.”

In 2015, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a joint resolution to remove the ratification deadline but it was not given a hearing.

“A majority of Americans are supportive that we do not endorse discrimination based on sex,” Speier said in an interview with Capital News Service, pointing to polls showing that 90 percent of Americans believe the amendment already exists and that 70 percent would support it.

Cardin’s Senate Joint Resolution 5 extends the period of time the ERA would have for ratification.

“It’s not unprecedented for it to take a long time to ratify an amendment,” Cardin said, recalling how it took more than 200 years to ratify the 27th Amendment, which prohibits immediate pay raises for members of Congress.

The 14th Amendment includes an Equal Protection Clause but it does not guarantee equal rights to both men and women. That amendment, which took effect in 1868, was written to eliminate discrimination based on race (the amendment was written in response to issues faced by former slaves during Reconstruction).

“Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it,” the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in an interview in 2011. “It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that.”

Some conservative groups like the Eagle Forum, founded by the late anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly, have fought the ERA over concerns the amendment would, among other things, give abortion additional constitutional protections, force women to be part of the military draft, and block widows from getting Social Security benefits based on their husbands’ earnings.

In 2014, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that if she were to choose one amendment to add to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment.

“So I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion – that women and men are persons of equal stature – I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society,” she said at a National Press Club event.

The day after Trump was inaugurated, women all over the world took to the streets to participate in marches to stand up for their rights.

People across the country began participating in organized marches to support ratification of the ERA in the 1970s. On July 9, 1978, 100,000 women marched in Washington for the ratification of the amendment. At the time, it was the largest march for women’s rights.

The more recent Women’s March was much larger.

“There were many people at the Women’s March wearing ERA pins and were very much engaged in promoting the ratification,” Cardin said.

Because of the visibility of the ERA at the march, those who were not aware of the issue became informed and supporters were picked up, Cardin said.

Van Hollen said that the Women’s March was a “huge rally for equal rights and equal justice.”

The senator added that there is “a new groundswell of support in making it clear (that it should be) in law that women should not be discriminated by gender,” Van Hollen said.

Former Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in August of 2016, does not see the ERA becoming part of the Constitution.

“Oh forget it,” Morella said in an interview with PBS Newshour. “It would be lovely to have it passed. I’m 100 percent for it. But I just don’t see that” gaining traction in Congress, she added, especially if lawmakers focus on issues like family paid leave.

“When I said forget it, I meant that ERA is not going to happen now, continue endorsing it (but) focus on things that can be passed in Congress right now,” Morella explained in an interview with Capital News Service.

Morella, who represented the state of Maryland’s 8th Congressional District from 1987 to 2003, previously lobbied Maryland’s legislature to ratify the ERA, and it did so in 1972.

“This is so hard to get through the states now as states have more concerns – different things to concentrate on such as equal pay, health care, paid family leave and better day care,” Morella said.

If the amendment was to be ratified during Trump’s presidency “it would be one of the few good things he could do,” Morella said. “He would use it as his way to say he’s not bad about women.”

Van Hollen said ratification could be a powerful legal tool for equal treatment regardless of gender.

“I would have thought the principle of equality regardless of gender would be embraced by all Americans,” Van Hollen said. “I don’t seem to understand the resistance.”