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by Zelda Gatuskin, President, Humanist Society of New Mexico
and Co-Chair, American Humanist Association Feminist Caucus
In July, we celebrated the anniversary of the National Woman’s Party Conference at Seneca Falls, NY in 1923, at which Alice Paul introduced the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” which read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The amendment was introduced in every session of Congress until it passed in 1972. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that was finally passed and sent to the states for ratification had been rewritten by Alice Paul in 1943 and reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” 35 of the required 38 states ratified the ERA in the brief timeframe for passage imposed by Congress. Efforts to pass the ERA have continued ever since, including a strategy to have Congress revoke their deadline so that the process of state ratification can go forward to add the 3 remaining states, instead of starting over in all of the states (the three-state strategy).
As women’s rights to privacy, free speech, equal pay for equal employment and self-determination come under attack in state after state, we wonder how and why the democratic ideals of this country continue to bypass 51% of its population. How long must women wait to be recognized as equal citizens of the United States?
It is no secret that our “Founding Fathers” afforded no civic role for women in their recipe for a democratic republic. While their ideals were high-minded, their vision of “liberty for all” was limited by ingrained class structure and patriarchal attitudes. In their minds, the responsibilities and rights of democracy must fall to a small group of privileged caretakers, who were charged with dispensing justice to the less capable masses. That patriarchal system persists today in our halls of government, where entrenched majorities of male legislators still feel entitled to dictate policies that keep women as second class citizens.
Our Founding Fathers lived in a time when the morality, intelligence and very personhood of women, non-whites, and even those who did not own land were contested. Yet they successfully established a framework through which their restricted version of democracy has been able to expand to encompass and encourage ever more diversity and participation in this grand experiment. Amendments to the Constitution emancipated the slaves, reduced the voting age, forbade discrimination on the basis of race, and enfranchised blacks and women. The passage of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to women, is commemorated each year on August 26, Women’s Equality Day. And yet, by the letter of the U.S. Constitution, we still are not equal.
There is one way to fix our Founders’ omission. That is the ERA, which would finally codify the right of all Americans to equal justice under the law, that “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on the basis of sex.” Until we add this wording to the Constitution, all U.S. women will remain subject to the whims of a select few.
90 years after the ERA was first proposed, 40 years after it was first passed by Congress and sent to the states, why are the women of this country still, in effect, ruled by men? Why are we still in this position of petitioning Congress – comprised overwhelmingly of men – to grant us equality under the law? Are we people? Are we citizens? Do those “inalienable rights” apply to us and shall transgressions against them be punishable by law? Is it still up to Daddy to decide? Excluding women from the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is not a protection, it is a disgrace. Ratifying the ERA is not a dream from the past, it is unfinished business. We cannot rest until the job is done.
It is never too late to right a historic wrong. It is never too soon to demand inclusion for the disempowered. Over and over in our nation’s history, the law has been used to light the way to justice, sometimes in the lead and sometimes following behind public sentiment. The majority of U.S. citizens today believe that the Constitution should (or even already does) guarantee men and women equal rights. It’s time to get that in writing. We agree that women and men are innately equal. We know that personhood is intrinsic and not granted by any deed of government. It is time for our nation to affirm and uphold women’s equal status under the law by adding the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.
Women’s Equality Day will be celebrated in Albuquerque on Sunday, August 25 at Tiguex Park from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. All are invited to join a diverse coalition of community groups and your elected officials in honoring the contributions women have made toward gaining equality for all U.S. citizens, and to express support for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.