Here’s a way that by being last, South Carolina lawmakers could do something really good: Pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Only one more state legislature has to approve it for it to become part of our nation’s basic protections.
You might have forgotten about the amendment, first approved by Congress in 1972, following the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s. After approval, the amendment went to the states for ratification. Thirty-eight states are needed for ratification.
Right out of the gate, states forged ahead with Hawaii approving on the same day as the final congressional vote. In 1972, 28 states of the 38 needed to ratify approved the amendment. It looked like it was on its way.
But when conservative organizer Phyllis Schlafly started a “Stop ERA” movement that year, things slowed down. Schlafly argued that the ERA, rather than guarantee equal protection for women under law, would create problems for them receiving Social Security, alimony, and other benefits. While those arguments were batted down over time, they took the steam out of the ratification push.
By 1979 when a congressionally-imposed deadline approached, three states were needed for final approval. Legal wrangling over the deadline ensued with the judicial branch essentially leaving it to Congress whether to adhere to a deadline or ignore it. By the dawn of the 21st century, the ERA was mostly a distant memory.
Then came the #MeToo movement, pink knitted hats, and women’s marches on government institutions after the 2016 presidential election. On March 22, 2017, the 45th anniversary of congressional approval, the Nevada legislature approved the amendment, followed by Illinois a year later. Nevada lawmakers moved forward after being counseled “if three more states sent their ratification to the appropriate federal official, it would then be up to Congress to determine whether a sufficient number of states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D, Orangeburg) hopes the final state to ratify the ERA is South Carolina. She and S.C. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D, Charleston), separately pre-filed ratification bills in December. Both measures have bipartisan support, most critically that of House Judiciary Committee Chair Peter McCoy (R, Charleston).
Cobb-Hunter said while there have been advances for women since 1972 throughout society, the ERA is needed “because first and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. Women deserve equal protection under the law. We [in South Carolina] are known for so many negative things. It would be neat if we were known for something that guarantees rights, given our sordid civil rights history.”
She added that federal protection for equal rights would protect women across state lines because state laws aren’t always similar. Constitutional protection would provide an avenue to ensure fair treatment.
State Rep. Nancy Mace (R, Berkeley), isn’t convinced the ERA is needed, citing some of the same arguments Schlafly used five years before Mace was born.
“I believe women already have equal rights as protected under the 14th Amendment,” Mace said. “This legislation also doesn’t take into consideration some of the collateral damage it might have.” She listed concerns about women not receiving Social Security benefits, alimony, and child support, for example.
Not true, said Jennet Robinson Alterman, chair of the city of Charleston’s Commission on Women. In February, she helped to push through a pro-ERA resolution approved unanimously by Charleston City Council.
“Wives and widows already receive Social Security,” she said. “Child support is based on ‘best interests of the child.’ Alimony is based on the earnings and assets of both spouses. Many women currently pay alimony to the ex-husbands.”
Alterman told council members it is time for the ERA to be approved.
“We believe that women deserve full and equal rights in the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “The only right guaranteed for women in the Constitution is the right to vote.” And she reminded council members of the words of conservative jurist Antonin Scalia in 2011: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
Let’s expand legal protections for women. And let’s encourage lawmakers to have the Palmetto State become the 38th state to approve the measure and push it over the goal line.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org