Federal Equal Rights Amendment Moves Step Closer to Passage After House Vote

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Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier speaks at a press conference on the House’s upcoming vote to remove the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on Feb. 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Updated 1 p.m. Thursday

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to approve a resolution paving the way for Congress to take up the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment proposed nearly a century ago that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of one's sex.

Known as the ERA, the amendment was first proposed in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul, and every session of Congress thereafter until it was approved by the House of Representatives in 1971 and the Senate the following year. The ERA needed three-quarters of state legislatures, or 38 states, to back it. But by the 1982 deadline, only 35 had. That changed in recent years, with state lawmakers in Nevada and Illinois approving the ERA; and Virginia, the 38th state, following suit in January.

The only thing standing in the way of the amendment, lawmakers said, was that 1982 deadline. That's where the resolution — H.J.Res.79, sponsored by Democratic Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier — came in to remove it. Democrats and Republicans have introduced a companion joint resolution in the U.S. Senate that lifts the deadline, too.

"Our message here today is quite simple: We want in. We want in the (U.S.) Constitution," Speier said Wednesday at a press conference ahead of the vote. "... Because women are not recognized in our founding document, the Constitution, as fully equal to men under the law. We are not equal."

"It is a vote for America that we have fought so hard to become," she added. "Our vote is also a strong message that women in America are done. We are done being harassed, assaulted and violated with impunity. We are done being paid less for the same work. We are done being discriminated against for our pregnancies."

A group of suffragettes in June 1920. Alice Paul, who first called for the constitutional amendment in 1923, is third from left on the bottom row.
A group of suffragists in June 1920. Alice Paul, who first called for the constitutional amendment in 1923, is third from left on the bottom row. (National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress)

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Other lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, spoke out in support of the resolution. Without the ERA being enshrined in the Constitution, women still face inequality under the law from the wage gap, pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment, she said, resulting in them "being underrepresented at the table."

"This year that marks the centennial of women having the right to vote, it is a shameful reality that the Equal Rights Amendment still has not been enshrined in the Constitution," she said Thursday, referring to the 19th Amendment of 1920. "As a result, millions of American women still face inequality under the law and injustice in their careers and lives."

Supporters say the Constitution doesn't provide protections against sex discrimination and that's why the ERA is needed. Opponents argue the amendment is a false pretext for abortion and that women are already protected against sex discrimination by other laws and the 14th Amendment. They point to gains made by women, such as being able to serve in the military and in combat, and say the need for such an amendment today is moot.

Concern about women’s rights since the election of President Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement has re-energized efforts to ratify the amendment, which stalled when conservative women — led by Phyllis Schlafly, who began a group called Stop ERA — began to organize against it.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, said he recalled when his state ratified the ERA — in 1972.

The Equal Rights Amendment
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"I could not understand why women were not equal under our Constitution," he said Wednesday, asking why the nation's founders "didn't say we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humankind are created equal."

"It's never too late to do the right thing," he said, noting, "It is far past time to act."

One other potential hiccup for the ERA: Five states that approved it later rescinded their OK, and opponents and supporters disagree on whether that is legal.

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