BY ANN VON BROCK
You might be surprised to learn that women do not have equal rights in this country. You’d be in good company: In a 2016 poll conducted by DB5 on behalf of the ERA Coalition and the Fund for Women’s Equality, 80 percent of respondents mistakenly said the Constitution already includes such a guarantee. Many people think equal rights are covered by either the Equal Rights Amendment — which Congress approved in 1972 but which fell three states short of the required number of ratifications by the June 30, 1982, deadline — or by the 14th Amendment, which deals with the rights of citizens and equal protection under the law. But since that amendment’s original wording defined citizens as “male,” it didn’t grant women full citizenship rights — and, in fact, they couldn’t even vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Others believe women’s rights are guaranteed by such laws as the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. A growing body of court cases, however, shows that there are ways to get around treating women fairly under those laws.
I admit to having been surprised by this myself. In the 1970s, I rallied for the ERA, knew it hadn’t passed but bought the hype that we were otherwise covered. This was a terrible misunderstanding on my part; somehow, many others fell into the same trap. But thanks to Roberta Madden of Black Mountain, who has tirelessly advocated for the ERA for over 40 years, I am back on track.
I’ve learned that laws can be overturned, executive orders can be changed and congressional acts can be reversed. It is now clear that until women are explicitly included in the U.S. Constitution, there is no guarantee we will have equal citizenship. Currently, the only constitutionally protected right for women is the right to vote.
As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
Historically, the ERA has been a nonpartisan issue. A differently worded version of the bill was first introduced in Congress in 1923 by a Republican. It was part of the Republican Party platform four years before the Democratic Party embraced it. Scare tactics about women having to serve in combat and being forced to work outside the home led to the ERA’s removal from the Republican platform, even though many Republican women supported it and still do.
This should not be a partisan issue. The 2016 poll showed 94 percent adult support for equal rights for men and women: 90 percent of men and 96 percent of women. When identified by political party, 97 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of independents supported the amendment. That’s a pretty compelling majority — but we aren’t doing much to make it happen.
Suzie Morris, who now lives in Mars Hill, had careers in several fields not typically open to women. After earning a degree in cinematography and cinema arts, she tried to get a job as a camera production assistant in several states but was repeatedly rejected. Men told her it was virtually impossible for a woman to be hired for such a position. During an earlier radio career, she was hired by a male program director, but when the male general manager found out, he “went ballistic,” says Morris. And when she proved to be a good hire, he told her he “wished she was black so he could get two for one.”
Martha Marshall is an associate professor emeritus from UNC Asheville, where she taught accounting. In high school and college during the 1960s and ’70s, she couldn’t enroll in drafting or agricultural economics classes because females were not allowed. Before becoming a college professor, Marshall worked in public accounting. Some businesses, she says, insisted that only a male CPA be sent to audit their company; and in some firms, a woman could never get field experience — and thus could never make partner.
“Some years ago at a CPA dinner meeting in Asheville,” says Marshall, “one of my bosses made the statement that it was OK for a woman to work, but a woman’s primary job was to get married and have children. I was married but did not have children. Fortunately another man at the table defended women, including me, wanting to have a professional career.”
I had many similar experiences while seeking employment years ago. “We don’t hire women,” I was told, or “We only want men because they’re better workers,” or “Would your husband approve of you working here? We don’t want trouble.” I found less sexism in the nonprofit sector, where many women hold managerial positions and there’s more awareness of gender-based discrimination. But even there, prejudice persists. One national charity was hiring a new president, and some of the male chapter CEOs suggested hiring a woman so they wouldn’t have to pay her as much as the male predecessor.
Good companies investigate discrimination charges thoroughly and often implement training or corrective action, says Lianne Price, a 32-year-old human resources professional with 11 years’ experience around the country. The Asheville resident’s support for the ERA comes from her surprise that it hadn’t already been adopted and her belief that all workers should have equal protection. In sex discrimination cases, the courts use a different standard from the strict scrutiny required for such classifications as race, religion and national origin. That makes it hard to prove intentional sex discrimination, which won’t be prohibited until the Constitution explicitly does so.
Section 1 of the ERA reads as follows: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This wording would provide legal protection for anyone facing sex discrimination, regardless of their gender. It would also clarify the legal status for the courts, helping to ensure more consistent decisions in cases dealing with such issues as equal pay for equal work, pregnancy discrimination, violence against women, child custody and citizenship, and inequities in Social Security, taxes, pensions and insurance.
Bills reintroducing the Equal Rights Amendment have been proposed in every session of Congress since 1982, yet Congress has never voted on them. Meanwhile, some argue that the 1982 deadline is no longer valid, meaning only three more states need to ratify the ERA for it to take effect. And with the Nevada State Assembly about to vote on ratification (the state Senate approved it March 1), just two more approvals may soon be needed.
As of this writing, North Carolina is one of 15 states that haven’t ratified the amendment, though a bill to ratify was introduced in the General Assembly in 2015 — for the first time since 1982 — and again this year.
If legislators don’t hear about something from voters, they assume it isn’t very important. So here’s what we need to do: Share this information with the people around you who care about equal rights. Share it with people who don’t yet care but would if they understood the situation. Most importantly, call your state representative and senator and urge them to support ratification of the ERA (Senate Bill 85 and House Bill 102). Tell them this is not about political parties — it’s about what is right for all citizens.
Our mothers, sisters, daughters and nieces need to be included in the Constitution of this country!
A regional ERA meeting will be held 1-3 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Rainbow Community Center, 60 State St. in West Asheville. Anyone interested in learning more about the ERA and what can be done to advance it in North Carolina is welcome.
Asheville resident Ann Von Brock is a retired human services professional who’s working with Ratify ERA-NC and the ERA-NC Alliance.