Last week as legislative leaders scrambled to reach a compromise on House Bill 2, a group of women activists and legislators gathered in the Legislative Building to advocate for a much older law involving gender – the Equal Rights Amendment. The event, complete with women holding the iconic round signs of 45 years ago emblazoned with “ERA YES,” felt like it was happening in a time warp, but the issue is very much part of now. Bills filed in both the state House and Senate this year would give the legislature a chance to ratify the amendment.
The Equal Rights Amendment easily passed Congress in 1972 and went on to be ratified by 35 states – just short of the 38 needed to be adopted. The North Carolina House approved the ERA in 1977, but it fell two votes short in the Senate. Another push that brought thousands of ERA supporters to Raleigh in 1982 also failed.
The ERA died, or appeared to, when an extended deadline for passage expired in 1982. Now the amendment has been revived by the Nevada legislature voting in March to ratify it. That doesn’t necessarily move the amendment within two states of becoming law. Several states rescinded their approval and the deadline for passage has expired. But Congress could extend the deadline again and approval at the state level should be less contested now than when the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly turned the tide against the bill. She said the “sex-neutral” law could lead to women bring drafted, same-sex marriages and government-funded abortions.
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Social changes since the 1970s have rendered many of the conservative objections to the ERA moot, but the arguments of the advocates are still fresh despite increases in women’s education, presence in government and participation in the workforce. In the past four decades, women have served in every high office except the presidency and vice presidency and joined the volunteer military. They are the majority among college and law students and near 50 percent of medical students. But for all that change, old inequities persist. Women are still a distinct minority among CEOs and in legislative bodies. There are chronic problems with sexual assaults on women in the military and on college campuses. Domestic violence and human trafficking are constant or growing threats. Conservative lawmakers are still trying to limit women’s reproductive rights and their access to medical care through Planned Parenthood. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act could bring back higher insurance premiums for women.
And pay inequity endures. “In North Carolina, the wage gap is still here, and it’s still affecting millions of women in our state,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat. “The ERA would make this 100 percent illegal.” The amendment says that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Men also benefit
Perhaps the most notable change from then to now is that the ERA has become more important for men. With more two-income households, men have a stake in equal pay for women and preventing workplace harassment. They also benefit from paid leave, equal insurance costs and subsidized child care.
After the image beating that North Carolina took from HB2, the state’s passage of the ERA would send a needed positive signal. There should be no objection from conservatives. They just spent a year declaring their dedication to defending the rights of women in bathrooms. They should also defend women’s rights in workplaces and their rights to be safe from domestic violence and assault at colleges or harassment at work.
In Nevada, opponents of the ERA argued that passing it now would be only symbolic, but an amendment to the Constitution is far more than that. It enshrines a national value that can’t be eliminated by legislatures or curtailed by courts. North Carolina, at long last, should vote: “ERA YES.”