For many, the beginning of March comes with the promise of Winter ending and Spring coming around the corner. However, in recent decades March has come to be known as “Women’s History Month.” The declaration of an entire month being focused around the achievements women have made and the challenges they overcame, is in response to the establishment of International Women’s Day, observed around the world every year on March 8th.
In honor of this celebration, ROUND + SQUARE spoke with the inspiring Jessica Neuwirth. She is one of the founders of Equality Now, the ERA Coalition and Donor Direct Action, as well as the author of Equal Means Equal.
Equal Means Equal and the Equal Rights Amendment
According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, approximately 50% of American adults believe that United States has achieved equality between men and women. This number begins to vary rather significantly when you break it down between political party, race, and age. However, one question remains consistent: How do you define gender equality?
The answer should be easy. Dictionary.com defines the concept as “the state of having the same rights, status, and opportunities as others, regardless of one’s gender.” But, if the United States has reached a point of gender equality, why are women of all races still paid less than the white man? Why are women disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination, inadequate healthcare and gender based violence?
Why is it that women are not granted the same protection and rights as men under the United States Constitution?
Yep, that’s right: despite the fact that 72% of Americans believe that women’s rights and legal protection are secured by the constitution, and regardless of an effort of 95 years, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has yet to be ratified and added to the constitution.
In 1923, Alice Paul, well known for her work during the women’s suffrage movement, brought the original draft of the ERA to Congress and was met with avid disagreement. The ERA was introduced into every session of congress from 1923 to 1970. It wouldn’t be until 1972 that the amendment got enough votes from Congress to be passed onto the states.
Now, 46 years later, the ERA still has not been ratified by the necessary number of states in order to be permanently added to the Constitution!
As of 2017, only 36 of the 38 states needed have ratified the amendment.
“In the decades since [the ERA was introduced to congress], the ERA fell off the radar screen and many people today don't even know what it is, or think we already have it,” Neuwirth said. “We don't.”
The U.S Constitution is one of the 32 constitutions that does NOT include an explicit gender equality guarantee. And while it might come to a shock for many people, even Afghanistan's constitution includes equal rights provisions for women, when the U.S does not.
Picketers supporting the Equal Rights Amendment protesting in April 1981 | Photo: Getty
It is undeniable that women’s position within society in the United States has come a long way, which is why many still questions whether or not the ERA is even necessary to secure the rights of women. Actress and activist Marisa Tomei said:
“We’ve come miles and miles, and we still don’t have an equal rights amendment yet. We don’t have equal pay yet. There’s still a lot of blind misogyny that’s not personal, but institutionalized. We still have work to do.”
ROUND + SQUARE’s Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Henriette Ernst, was inspired by Equality Now’s work in creating a world in which women and girls have the same rights as men and boys. “It makes me sad that in 2018 we even need to talk about equal rights for men and women. It should just be natural that we are all equal.”
She believes that a country like the United States should lead by example and take action. By doing so, Ernst believes that we can have a better and empowering society.
“America plays a crucial role in this world,” Ernst said. “To have a healthy planet and society, NOW and for future generations, it is very important that one of the most powerful and beautiful countries like the United States take action and make equal rights for women part of its constitution. It would change the world! EQUAL POWER will make us stronger. We are all equally needed, both men and women, to make the world a better place.”
There is legislation in place to protect women. However, legislation can be easily and quickly overturned at any point. On the other hand, once something is in the Constitution, there is much more extensive legal precedent to get something changed or removed. Unfortunately, recent history has also shown that the legislation in place is full of loopholes, often leading to cases of discrimination going unpunished. Women are still finding themselves at the mercy of a legal system which does not recognize the true political equality of the sexes.
As Neuwirth explains in her book Equal Means Equal, there is still an abundance of legal protection in which women look to gain from the addition of the ERA. In particular, she outlines pay inequality, pregnancy discrimination, violence against women and security from discriminatory laws. In fact, Neuwirth also points out that men have things to gain from the Equal Rights Amendment as well, specifically in regard to paternal and family matters.
“The intentional exclusion of women from the Constitution when it was written in the 18th century fostered a culture that treats women like second class citizens and created a climate in which women have been subjected sexual harassment and abuse with impunity,” Neuwirth said.
You might wondering why such a “common sense” political decision has taken so long to become a reality, and the reasons as to why even in 2018 we cannot get two more states to ratify the amendment.
Historically, there has been an abundance of misinformation regarding the ERA, one of the most commonly heard reasons as to why women stood against the amendment was because of the misconception that the passing of the ERA would now enable women to be drafted into the military. In fact, the Constitution already allows for the United States government to draft whomever they choose, it makes no specifications regarding age, race, gender etc.
We live in an age where women are proudly and undeniably taking the world by storm with their careers, voices and activism. The rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement has shown that women are done being seen and treated as second class citizens.
Beyond the misunderstandings regarding the ERA, the core issue arises that there is a lack of public knowledge and awareness about the fact that within the Constitution, men and women are not granted the same economic, political and social rights and freedoms. If it was more widely known that this discrepancy existed, there is little doubt that women everywhere would demand the same constitutional power which is given to men.
“Now we have an opportunity, as women are speaking out more and more and with the #MeToo movement saying enough is enough, to push the ERA into the Constitution,” Neuwirth said. “The ERA Coalition is working to mobilize women and men around the country to get the ERA passed and ratified to give women equal rights once and for all. It's time.”
EQUAL MEANS EQUAL, and it’s about time the United States Constitution reflected that.