37 Years Later…

By Genavieve Smith

Yesterday, the United States House Judiciary Committee considered H.J. Resolution 79, legislation to remove one of the few barriers left to finally add the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution: a 1982 deadline for ratification.

First proposed almost a century ago and passed by Congress in 1972, the ERA—which would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex—was ratified by only 35 of the necessary 38 states before the 1982 deadline (extended from its original 1979 deadline). Nearly four decades later in 2018, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify, and now, in the wake of the Virginia 2019 elections, there is a new dawn for the ERA: with Virginia’s incoming pro-ERA leadership, passage in the state is almost assured. Virginia is expected to soon become the 38th and final state needed to make the ERA the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The hearing, chaired by Representative and ERA supporter Jerry Nadler (D-NY), was overwhelmed with support for the ERA, but anti-equality members of the committee made their presence loud and clear, cloaking their opposition to the bill with respect for parliamentary procedure and anti-abortion rhetoric. To kick things off, Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) emphasized Congress’s political processes, claiming the political body doesn’t have the authority to retroactively change the amendment’s deadline—despite it arbitrarily deciding to create and extend the deadline once before. He even mentioned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and longtime ERA supporter believes the ERA needs to be re-proposed before Congress, starting the process over again. Collins then left the room abruptly, complaining he wasn’t at the president’s impeachment hearing instead.

While the process of this resolution may be unprecedented, Congress has the power to create, extend, or remove deadlines as long as its members go through the proper channels, following the processes revered so much by Collins and other anti-ERA representatives in attendance at the hearing

And about RBG—she may have been quoted in the past saying she hopes the ERA process starts over, but that’s probably the only thing she and ERA opponents can agree on in terms of the amendment. Anti-equality lawmakers using RBG’s words as justification for their opposition to the ERA is half-baked: wielding the quote of a known supporter of abortion access to highlight their position on an amendment in which their only other talking point is how the amendment would support abortion access is questionable and contradictory. Why would those opposing equality put her, a Supreme Court Justice whose legacy of working for gender equality would be preserved by the ERA’s passage, on a pedestal in committee? 

Not long after Collins gave his opinion, Representative Mike Johnson (R-LA) reiterated all of his same points—yet again quoting RBG—and denounced the ERA for being conscious of gender identity beyond the binary and opening the door for abortion access. Referencing those who surgically transition from their assigned sex at birth, he claimed the ERA is “anti-female” and could lead to permanent infertility among women. In this way, Johnson not only missed the point of the ERA, but he also belittled the trans experience and reduced his support for (cisgender) women down to the issue of fertility. Highlighting himself as both transphobic and antifeminist, Johnson made his opposition to a progressive ERA blatantly clear—his supposed support for women or equality is rooted in anti-choice control in more ways than one. To make matters worse, he also objected to the ERA’s potential to strike down the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that prevents the use of federal funding for abortion care except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of a pregnant person.

Notably, none of the conservative, anti-equality members of the hearing indicated whether they would support an ERA if pro-equality legislators and activists were to start the process over again.

On the supporting side, however, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) responded, denouncing Collins’ suggestion that political process should precede progress. The point, he said, is for “women and girls to be able to see themselves in the Constitution,” something that resonated with the majority of the people in the room. While Cohen’s statement was encouraging and thoughtful, the most uplifting aspect of the hearing was listening to so many elected women share their statements about the ERA and what it means for the Constitution—and for future generations of those inadequately represented by the dated document. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said she worked to ratify the ERA when she was a college student, and that it is just as important today as it was then. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) suggested the contentious process supposedly in the way of progress can be fixed with bipartisan legislation, stating “the very basis of the equality of the sexes should not be asked in 2020.”

Ultimately, after about an hour and a half of representatives presenting their opinions on the deadline removal resolution, it passed by a vote of 21-11, which I only know because Representative Johnson resentfully requested an official vote count after yelling “nay!” as loud as he could within reason.

Now that the bill has made its way through the Judiciary Committee, it will go to the House for a full vote where it will likely pass. Its fate in the Senate, where it may never even be brought to the floor, is less reassuring, however. But as Representative Lofgren emphasized, progress is often slow—something feminists know all too well.

By Genavieve Smith

Genavieve is a student studying political science at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, advocating for survivors of sexual violence, and protecting reproductive rights for all.

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