The Nevada Senate voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on March 22, 2017, the 45th anniversary of its passage by Congress. The deadline for ratification expired nearly 35 years ago. This symbolic vote, supported by the Nevada Women’s Lobby, affirmed equality in these times when women’s rights are under attack.
Why this renewed interest in equal rights for women? The women’s marches powerfully demonstrated that women are concerned about the erosion of their rights at federal and local levels. The latest executive order on “religious liberty” strengthen employers’ rights to limit women’s access to preventative health care and contraception. Currently, two bills in Congress seek to reactivate the Equal Rights Amendment.
I became a supporter of the ERA when I read about Alice Paul in MS magazine in the late 1960s. Paul introduced the ERA every year from 1923 until 1972. In 1972, the ERA passed both houses of Congress and proceeded for state ratification. Like many young feminists, I eagerly bought a small silver band bracelet, with the letters ERA carved out, to help fund the ratification process.
I put the bracelet on vowing “I will wear this bracelet until the ERA passes or I will be buried in it.”
Fast forward to 1978 and the ERA has still not passed. A newly minted professor, I’m invited for a job interview at the University of Arizona. Several of my friends suggested that I take my bracelet off because Arizona was a conservative state. I thought about it but decided that if the bracelet kept me from getting a job, that was okay. My feminism was part of who I was; I didn’t want to work where I needed to pretend to be someone else.
The bracelet became a litmus test, perhaps more for me than for my faculty colleagues. In one-on-one meetings, lunches, and dinners, I met my colleagues in sociology and related disciplines and administrators. Nearly without exception, they asked about the bracelet. Most assumed that it was a POW bracelet and asked if I had lost a family member in the recently ended Vietnam War. I would say, “No, it’s for the equal rights amendment.” “What’s that?” was the usual reply.
This is how feminism happens. One conversation, one person at a time.
Fast forward to 1979. Only 35 of the needed 38 states ratified the ERA, and efforts to extend the ratification period fail. My only consolation was that Alice Paul died in 1977 and didn’t see ratification end unsuccessfully.
In 1982, elected representatives took up the cause of introducing the ERA every year, demonstrating the success of Alice Paul’s lobbying. Meanwhile, across the country, cities and counties passed legislation protecting equal rights, and 24 states have constitutional support that equal rights under the law shall not be denied because of sex.
Internationally, the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women came into effect September 1981. The only members of the United Nations who have not ratified this declaration are Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the United States.
Feminists across the country continue efforts toward equality working with allies in the civil rights, human rights, and LGBTQ movements. Progress is not unidirectional. There are setbacks, alliances falter, and change is difficult and uneven. But we keep fighting for equality. Person by person, vote by vote, state by state.
And Nevada, they are ahead of the curve and ready for the next national campaign for ERA.
Patricia MacCorquodale is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Her research focuses on women’s careers in science, engineering and legal professions, gender and human sexuality and educational aspirations and achievement.