On March 22, 1972, in a bi-partisan vote, Congress passed a proposed 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution. They sent it on to the states for approval, an arduous process. Thanks to the Republican Party’s subsequent change of heart and the hard right turn that culminated in Reagan’s election, the Equal Rights Amendment died in 1982 shy of but the three states still needed for ratification. There is good reason to feel ashamed of this failure and also of subsequent failed attempts to reintroduce as we approach the fortieth anniversary of its passage this week .
Women have made substantial progress over the years even without the ERA. But anyone who claims they have achieved true equality isn’t paying attention, much less living in the real world. Despite all the progress in business, a few now sitting corporate CEOs, women continue to suffer a pay and job deficit relative to men. There are only 17 women in the 100-member US Senate and two of them are leaving later this year. Thanks to President Obama, we now have three women on the Supreme Court but that’s far shy of the majority needed to decide any case on their own. The same can't be said about the six sitting men. Women still lag in academia where there remains a numerical faculty, and most importantly tenure, gender gap. Even absent hard numbers, I think it’s fair to say that we’re more apt to see a man’s face front and center in news coverage, print and digital, not to mention among the members of their editorial or business boards.
All this, perhaps only more so, can be said for people of color who continue to make great progress but badly lag their white counterparts, male or female. The then Senator Obama didn’t see a single other African American face on chamber floor and as president, he doesn’t even have that token before him when looking out from the State of the Union podium. The ERA spoke to federally protected equal rights and that means also the rights of, for example, black and Hispanic men as well as women. One has to wonder how well state laws against marriage equality might have held up against ERA? If women and minorities stand out for their underrepresentation across so many strata of our society, it remains something novel to have an openly gay person running for public office. One of the very few, Barney Frank (who came out late), will also be leaving Congress this year and there aren’t many Christine Quinn’s running for mayor around the country. The future of marriage equality is front and center in many places these days including here in North Carolina where a mean-spirited Proposition 8-like constitutional amendment is up for citizen ratification early in May.
It is always interesting to consider what is so — that women, African American, Hispanic, Gays and others find themselves behind even when theoretically they should not be there any more. More instructive may be trying to understand why that is so. As we proceed toward this year’s election there has been wide coverage of what is, to put it generously, a superficial and disheartening campaign for our highest office. The shift toward the right that killed ERA has progressed well beyond what even Ronald Reagan might have imagined. Some have described the rhetoric in 2012 as vitriolic — it certainly lacks civility. But to some degree, it’s hard to take what candidates say on the stump that seriously. Unfortunatly, they all pander and they all go over the edge, regardless of party.
What strikes me is not the candidates but the almost irrational anger one hears expressed by citizens interviewed along the campaign trail. They just want to get rid of Obama and that seems to transcend any particular issue. Now I know that other presidents have been subject to such hatred, FDR in his time and of course more recently Bill Clinton. But the level of hatred seems more extreme this time around. In fact, it has been reported that there have been an unprecedented number of death threats against the president, so much so that the Secret Service is overwhelmed. It may well be that Hilary Clinton, as a woman, might have faced similar hatred or threats. The question is why?
For sure racial prejudice, which remains alive and well in America, plays here. And gender prejudice, albeit in a very different way, remains. But looking at the object of the hatred is to miss the underlying point as, I would suggest, is attributing it to prejudice against any particular group. The ERA failed to pass the requisite number of states not so much because people were anti-women per se, but that it signaled a different world. Think of it this way. If God wanted the world to be different, he wouldn’t have made it the way it was and had always been. It isn’t that life might be different for women, which surely is the case, but that it would be different for men. Let’s remember that throughout history, and that included the history of this great democracy, there was no equality between the sexes.
As many men saw it, the ERA translated into greater competition in the work place but, much worse, it threatened home life as they knew it. The women who opposed it, most notably Phyllis Schlafly, the right wing provocateur of the day, saw themselves as protecting traditional values, the same kind that seem so important to candidate Rick Santorum. What the ERA, civil rights, Spanish speakers in our midst, gays out in the sunlight equals is changing our way of life. Forget Social Security and Medicare, it goes against what may Americans feel is their real entitlement, the way portrayed by Norman Rockwell, the good old days. What really makes them climb the walls is when their cherished way is described by the next generation as so yesterday.
Sure the Tea Party represents a highly conservative political view, but what get’s it’s followers out of bed in the morning is an obsession with the idea that things are not as they were and a resolve to turn the clock back, or at least stop it. They don’t want to live with a redefined life, including redefined institutions. That’s why they’re so exercised about the marriage issue and even about the idea of global warming which means that, using a seemingly silly example, they won’t be able to light their rooms with incandescent bulbs. No one has the right to take away their picture of the happy couple — mom and dad — coming down the aisle much less question that the most elemental bit of matter isn’t properly the God particle — god made.
The 2008 election was about change. Some people make derisive light of that these days, some bemoan that too little change has actually occurred. They dismiss it as just a slogan, an unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible promise. I’d submit that change is what we’re all about in the twenty-first century, and at every level. To me the change slogan reads as an alert, a wakeup call. Many of us, perhaps most of us on some level, find change — not the idea but the reality — frightening. We’re ready to do battle. I understand, as Bill Clinton would say, your pain. But before you continue on that journey to reverse what is, give some thought to Sisyphus. Things are not as they were and will likely never be. The ERA may have failed, the full rights it intended may experience some more delay. Change may make some of us angry feeling that we can’t take it any more. No matter, tomorrow isn’t just coming, it has arrived. Perhaps not de jure, but de facto the ERA is here and it’s irreversible. We should raise a glass and celebrate its anniversary.