Last year, I attended a program advocating for passage of the long-defunct Equal Rights Constitutional Amendment: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Arising out of the passion of the women’s movement, many of us worked hard to persuade the General Assembly to pass the ERA. But the opposition, led by Sen. Sam Ervin – our famous Watergate hero – and Phyllis Schlafly was working just as hard. While we came within one vote, North Carolina’s conservatism just couldn’t be overcome, and its defeat was the nail in the coffin of the Amendment.
Along the way, feminism became a dirty word, evolving into Rush Limbaugh‘s “feminazi.” But our efforts were not in vain and the issues we fought for in the women’s movement to a large extent have come about. Over 50 percent of undergraduate students are women, approaching that in law and medical schools, and although women are still under-represented in engineering and math and science, they are making gains. Today women can aspire and be anything they want from NASCAR driver to (someday) president.
So, do we need an amendment to the Constitution?
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In light of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, many people say yes. But the argument for the amendment goes beyond the court’s decision that corporations are persons able to impose their religious beliefs on their female employees. It affects women’s equality in every sphere: wages, credit, employment, education, sports, the military, family law.
Today we are still fighting to provide women in the labor force equal pay, and bills I introduced in the legislature: paid sick and family leave. Women make up a disproportionate part of the workforce, earning minimum or low wages. In a recession, more women lose full-time jobs and have to support their families with part-time jobs.
Is Hobby Lobby, a turning point? As one conservative commentator pointed out, women weren’t guaranteed free contraception before the decision. (Interesting that Viagra, penis pumps and condoms apparently are still covered under Hobby Lobby’s insurance.) There is still another law suit by the Catholic Church on the same issue that the court may decide the same way. But while Hobby Lobby religious owners and the Catholic Church oppose contraception, women are continuing their use; in fact, 90 percent of Catholic women use contraception. So these decisions do not change behavior, only add a financial burden and in some cases, an unwanted pregnancy with all its consequences.
We know widely available contraception works. In Colorado, an anonymous donor provided free contraception to all teenage girls for five years and the teen pregnancy rate dropped 40 percent. But since it was a private project with no government involved, the question is whether such a sensible solution to teen pregnancy will continue by the state picking it up. Probably not, because it is so politically divisive.
The conservatives in Colorado said teen contraceptives are a bad idea “When young girls of 13, 14 and 15 are told they are descended from apes and other animals, it's small wonder they start behaving like animals. They get depressed. They get STDs. They get HIV. This is an offense against nature.” This, even though unintended pregnancy costs Colorado more than $160 million annually in Medicaid costs.
Perhaps the biggest question for most women is why are we even talking about the availability of contraceptives in 2014 when it was decided by the court in Griswald v. Connecticut almost 50 years ago. But equality is up for debate.
So, do we need the ERA or not?
Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator and mayor of Carrboro. You can reach her at email@example.com