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In addition to the occasional Hill rallies, ERA supporters have reintroduced the proposal in every Congress since it failed in 1982, according to Roberta Francis, chairwoman of the ERA Task Force at the National Council of Women’s Organizations.
Stepping in for longtime ERA supporter and late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Menendez has taken up the torch in fighting to pass the ERA along with his House counterpart, Rep. Carolyn Maloney. The New York Democrat has proposed an ERA bill in seven of her nine completed terms in hopes of repassing the amendment without a time limit for state ratification.
Seeing her bill get caught in committee doesn’t discourage her. “Big issues take a long time to gain momentum,” Maloney said. “I will continue to push this one for as long as it takes.”
Maloney thinks the grass-roots movement for the ERA is still strong, citing a recent New York City community board that unanimously passed a resolution in support of the ERA last week. She and Menendez are expected to reintroduce another ERA bill in March during women’s history month.
Likewise, the push for the ERA continues in Missouri, Illinois, Virginia, Florida, Oklahoma and Arizona, where women’s rights groups are lobbying their legislatures to ratify the original amendment despite the passed deadline.
Jane Mansbridge, ERA expert and professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, said that if and when three additional states ratify the ERA, it would “put considerable pressure on Congress” to repass the amendment.
Politics and Priorities
For all the bravado of Menendez, Maloney and feminists on the Hill who hope for an ERA revival, Congressional passage of the bill is highly unlikely in this political atmosphere.
Ever since the GOP dropped the ERA from its platform in the 1980s, the issue has lacked Republican support. During the 110th Congress, fewer than 10 of the 204 co-sponsors of the House ERA bill were Republicans. Last Congress, only four of 84 were, and no Republican Senators signed on to ERA bills in the past four years.
Social conservative and religious groups contend that the ERA would threaten privacy rights and traditional family roles, send women into combat and force states to fund abortions.
Other conservatives claim the amendment is irrelevant, that American society has already achieved equality.
“The biggest obstacle for the ERA isn’t a lack of support for the principle of equality,” said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), a former lead sponsor of the bill. “On that, almost all lawmakers agree. Many of those on the other side of this issue simply feel that a constitutional amendment is no longer necessary when so many legal protections already exist against gender discrimination.”
With a GOP-controlled House, advocates won’t hold their breath when the ERA bill is proposed this session.
“We’re going to publicize it loud and clear,” said NOW President Terry O’Neill. “Our leadership will call Representatives in Congress and say, ‘Support this.’ We’ll be there and work for it, but I don’t have any illusion about whether this can pass the House.”
“We joke that we’re on vacation” with Republicans in power, NOW press secretary Mai Shiozaki said.