Equal Rights Amendment Update: Some Battles Continue to Be Fought

“Every Constitution written since the end of World War II includes a provision that men and women are citizens of equal stature. Ours does not.”
-Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” -Declaration of Rights for Women, July 1876

by Lori Levin

“Equal rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” This sentence, ensuring gender equality under the United States Constitution, has generated controversy since the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed by the National Women’s Party to Congress in 1923.

To those women attorneys who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) appeared to be the litmus test for securing equal rights for women. Although the passage appeared to fail, the push to ratify ERA has been resurrected. Illinois, a battle ground during that fight, is now reconsidering ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

As all students of the law know, amending the United States Constitution can be an arduous process. Congress must pass all amendments by a two-thirds majority in both houses. Amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.   The ERA was passed by both houses of Congress in 1972. It was then sent to the state legislatures for debate and ratification. A deadline was set for ratification of March 22, 1979.  Within the first year, 30 of the necessary states ratified the amendment, with an additional five joining ratification by 1977. In 1978, the ratification deadline was extended to 1982. Although the Illinois House voted to support ERA in 1980, the vote fell short of the necessary three-fifth requirement. No other states voted in favor of the ratification and five states voted to rescind their ratification.

In the 1970s, a female Illinois lawyer Phyllis Schlafly, led the charge against the ERA. She claimed that the passage of ERA would eliminate alimony, sexual assault laws and same sex bathrooms. Per ushistory.org, the Stop-ERA movement delivered baked apple pies to Illinois legislators and hung “don’t draft me” signs on baby girls.

Although many of these “scare” tactics evidently worked thirty years ago in the Illinois legislature, that movement did not keep women from pursuing careers nor from achieving significant steps towards equality.

Congress, itself, has introduced the ERA in every session since 1982. There is pending legislation in the United States Senate and in the House of Representatives to eliminate the deadline. Proponents of the ERA assert that Congress has the ability to eliminate the deadline for ratification, recognize prior ratifications, and even to nullify the attempted rescissions of the ratifications.

As United States Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), who has sponsored the ERA since the 105th Congress, states in her letter to her colleagues, “Our democracy rests on the principle of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ We need the ERA to ensure that this concept applies equal to women.”

One of Representative Maloney’s most cogent legal arguments in her ERA position paper describes how ERA would make a difference in the litigation of allegations of discrimination based on gender. She states that “the courts currently determine whether a government statute or classification is discriminatory by using a heightened standard of intermediate scrutiny test. The intermediate scrutiny test provides that the government must prove that its classification based on sex is substantially related to achieve an important government interest. The passage of a constitutional amendment regarding sex discrimination would likely raise the standard utilized by the courts from intermediate scrutiny to strict scrutiny The strict scrutiny test, which is currently only applied to classifications based on race, national origin, and alienage, is nearly impossible to overcome. Strict scrutiny requires that the government prove the classification is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest, with no less restrictive means to achieving that interest available.” She further states that it would be difficult under the strict scrutiny standard of review to justify government classifications based on gender.

In Illinois, Article 1, Section 18 of the Illinois Constitution states: “The equal protection of the laws shall not be denied or abridge on account of sex by the State or its units of local government and school districts.” As each legislator has sworn to uphold the Illinois Constitution, it would seem that support of the Equal Rights Amendment would be necessary.   This month, the Illinois Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments and the Senate Executive Committee approved moving SJRCA 4, the legislative vehicle for this state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. SJRCA 4 needs to be passed by the full Senate as well as the House for this state to ratify constitutional equal rights for women.

The Women’s Bar Association of Illinois has long supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. Other bar associations, such as the Illinois State Bar Association, also support ratification.

This article is an update to “Some Battles Continue to Be Fought: The Equal Rights Amendment,” previously published in the WBAI’s Spring 2015 Newsletter.

Last updated: April 28, 2017

Lori G. Levin

Lori G. Levin is an experienced criminal and juvenile defense attorney who practices in the Chicagoland area. She can be reached at 312-972-3756 or levin@lorilevinlaw.com. Her website is www.lorilevinlaw.com. She can also be found on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/chicagodefenseand Twitter @LoriLevin.