A measure before Missouri lawmakers would place the country on the threshold of incorporating the Equal Right Amendment into the U.S. Constitution.
A Senate Concurrent Resolution sponsored by Democrat Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur would ratify the amendment on the state level.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has a long and storied history. It was first proposed in 1923, three years after the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote was ratified. The ERA finally received Congressional approval in 1972 during a surge in the feminist movement.
At the time, federal lawmakers gave the amendment the customary seven-year window to become official. It had until March 22, 1979, to receive ratification from the required 38 states to become law (3/4 of the states must approve Constitutional amendments).
Early on, it looked like the ERA would receive quick passage. 35 states passed it before opposition mounted and its progress stalled in the mid 1970’s.
One of the most vocal critics of the amendment was St. Louis native and conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, who led the Stop ERA Campaign. Schlafly contended the ERA would upend American tradition, threaten the existence of housewives and subject women to a military draft.
By its wording, the ERA seeks to give everyone equal rights regardless of sex. It’s defining first section states that “the equality of rights shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex”.
With ratification stuck at 35 states in 1979, Congress extended the ERA’s deadline to 1982. But no additional states approved the amendment during that period while at least four rescinded it, although the Supreme Court struck down their efforts as moot since the original time limit had expired.
It’s not certain what the legal status of the ERA is today, and there are many different arguments as to its eligibility for ratification. According to the website Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA has been introduced into every Congress since the 1982 deadline.
During the resolution’s recent committee hearing, Senator Schupp said passing the ERA is important because its language provides the framework for other gender-based legislation, such as equal pay. “When it is clear through our U.S. Constitution that we support women as equals, then I think that all kinds of things will begin to turn,” Said Schupp.
Republican committee member Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring offered some pushback to Schupp’s resolution, saying provisions in the 14th Amendment already ensure equal protections. The 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1865, includes the Equal Protection Clause which provides equal protection under the law to all people.
No fewer than 10 organizations and individuals – women and men – spoke in favor of ratifying the ERA at the hearing.
At least three of them brought up a widely reported 2011 interview of then Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in which he indicated the 14th Amendment does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Scalia, a vocal conservative on the bench, died in 2016.
Alison Dreith, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, says passage of the ERA will pave the way for gender to play a more prominent role in how laws are interpreted. “Women, time and time again, as we heard with the case of women workers at Walmart for instance, lose those court cases when sex isn’t allowed to be the only deciding factor,” said Dreith.
Four women went on record in opposition to ratifying the ERA at the hearing. Among them was Alyssa Johnson with the conservative group Concerned Women for America. She thinks the amendment is poorly conceived and is skeptical of any gender pay gap.
“We are against this bill because of the unintended consequences that passing this might have,” said Johnson. “I just wanted to point out that I’m a woman. I’ve been paid more than men counterparts in my career before.”
2018 marks the third consecutive year that Schupp has sponsored the Senate Concurrent Resolution. During the hearing, Democratic committee member Jason Holsman of Kansas City mentioned that he’d sponsored similar legislation in previous legislative sessions.
If Missouri ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment, it’s unclear if one or two more states would be needed to preserve it in law. Nevada approved the amendment in 2017, but the endorsement came decades after the original deadline expired.