Congress “moves” to rename bridges after baseball stars — but a bill to protect women’s constitutional rights languishes for 90+ years
We are living in the era where self-driving cars are imminent; we’ve sent robotic expeditions to Mars; but somehow, our agreeing that gender equality should be included in our foundational document is still politically untenable. It took 70 years of tireless advocacy to achieve the right for women to be able to vote, and now, it’s been almost a century that we’ve been deliberating over whether or not to add an amendment saying that citizens deserve equal rights regardless of sex. Though we take pride in being the nation of Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we are also a country that is still undecided as to whether or not women deserve a guarantee of equal protection under the law.
No recent piece of legislation captures this national ambivalence about enshrining women’s rights in our law more perfectly than does the ongoing fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed Constitutional amendment that has been on the national legislative agenda long enough to have gone through multiple eras of debate in its lifetime. Initially drafted by feminists and suffragists who were active in the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, the ERA is a proposed Constitutional amendment that disallows discrimination based on sex, explicitly giving women equal protection under the law. While this amendment was approved for consideration by the requisite percentage of the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was ratified by only 35 states out of the 38 necessary for passage (38 constituting a 3/4ths majority) despite a 3 year deadline extension. The ERA has been reintroduced to Congress in every single session since 1982, but keeps fading away without passage.
But recently, the ERA has attracted new attention, in part by champions like Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). After the 2016 election, many people soberly realized how quickly policies could change from one election cycle to the next. When you add to that new insight the possible capriciousness of the Executive branch and the threat of the loss of civil liberties, the argument that we should pass a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal protection regardless of sex gains a sense of urgency.
On Friday, November 17, Congresswoman Maloney held a press conference on Wall Street in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Representative Maloney has been a stalwart supporter of the ERA throughout her career; on this day, Rep. Maloney stood next to sculptor Kristen Visbal’s sculpture Fearless Girl, which shows a little girl bravely facing a raging bull. Representative Maloney has been one of the longtime champions of the ERA, introducing in Congress for reconsideration throughout her time in office. However, recognizing the marathon process of adding a national amendment and the inherent challenges with the ERA in particular, Rep. Maloney also stated her intention to introduce the ERA to the New York legislature in hopes of adding it as an amendment to the State Constitution. This might be a more feasible battle, and if successfully added on the state level, would explicitly extend equal protections to New York women.
In her speech, Rep. Maloney also addressed the current outpouring of women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. She said that in light of these revelations, the ERA is more needed than ever. Congresswoman Maloney was surrounded by civil society leaders and fellow government officials who also echoed her message. The group — which included representatives of the democracy-building platform DailyClout.io, ended the press conference by mimicking the confident pose of the Fearless Girl sculpture, which they were there to celebrate: hands on hips, looking confidently ahead.
The sculpture, which has become associated with women’s fight for equality, is scheduled to be removed in February 2018. But during the same press conference, Rep Maloney also made the request that the sculpture stay where it is until the ERA is eventually ratified.
But while Rep. Maloney’s commitment to gender equality is beyond reproach, and her idea of relating the passage of the ERA to the fate of Fearless Girl feels almost poetic, the fates of the amendment and of the statue should not be tied together. The ERA represents perseverance, having weathered, in some form, the past 94 years of political and cultural volatility. States are still ratifying it, 35 years after the end of the deadline to pass it on a Federal level. Today, its meaning is being renewed by new generations of feminist activists who recognize its relevance and are ushering in the next stage of its evolution, perhaps even rallying in response to Rep. Maloney’s call. But Fearless Girl is a controversial icon; it was commissioned by State Street, an asset manager that has its own checkered present to deal with.
Fearless Girl, a new face in New York, may indeed end up as a lasting statement of female strength; or else may prove to be a short-lived advertising stunt that could end up in the basement of an office on Lincoln Street in Boston, State Street’s home, by the time winter is over.
In an almost novelistic turn, State Street was fined $5 million this fall by the U.S. Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program (OFCCP) for systematically underpaying over 300 women and minorities since at least 2010. The fact that a statue beloved by so many for its image of female strength was commissioned by a large asset manager later fined for sexual discrimination, may be the best illustration, paradoxically, of the urgent need for a guarantee of constitutional protections against discrimination by sex.