The House Brings Back the Equal Rights Amendment

Pro-ERA protesters in Pennsylvania in 1976. Photo: Barbara Freeman/Getty Images

When Virginia’s legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in early 2020, making it the 38th state to do so since Congress passed the simple constitutional provision guaranteeing equal rights for women in 1972, there were celebrations tempered by the realization that it might change nothing. Yes, 38 out of 50 meant surpassing the three-fourths requirement for ratification of constitutional amendments, but several state legislatures had tried to rescind prior ratifications of the ERA. And more to the point, Congress had imposed an unusual ratification deadline for this particular amendment (originally 1979, but then extended to 1982).

Last year, the Democratic-controlled House passed a resolution repealing the ratification deadline, hoping to revive the ratification bandwagon even if the rescinding states were recognized. But the Trump administration deemed it unconstitutional, and the Republican-controlled Senate refused to bring it up for a vote. Now, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, the House passed the deadline repeal again on Wednesday in hopes that the president would support it and the Senate would be forced to vote on it.

Despite the simplicity of the amendment and the fact that it originally enjoyed robust Republican support (a call for it was a staple of national Republican Party platforms for many years prior to Ronald Reagan’s nomination in 1980), only four House Republicans voted for the repeal of the deadline. No one imagines the ten Republicans it would take to overcome a Senate filibuster will materialize to support it there, but at least they will be forced to go on the record on the ERA, which few senators have had to do in a long time.

There will be complaints from ERA opponents and even a few sincere observers that the ratification deadline cannot be repealed after it has passed, along with predictions (probably accurate) that there will be a flurry of litigation over its efficacy if it does pass. And even some ERA supporters aren’t terribly pleased with the prospect of the amendment finally taking effect when a very conservative judiciary, crowned by the John Roberts Supreme Court, would be interpreting it.

But the underlying reality is that this basic expression of equal rights between men and women cannot be placed in the Constitution where it manifestly belongs because the Republican Party is in perpetual debt to a Christian Right movement that views anti-ERA activism as one of its foundational experiences. More to the point, conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Catholic leaders committed to all-male leadership of the Church (and, in the former case, of the family) object to the ERA on its merits. Add in the possibility that the ERA implies reproductive rights and conservative religious opposition is complete.

Making Republican senators and their conservative allies articulate their not-very-popular grounds for opposing a step once thought to be a bipartisan no-brainer may be useful for Democrats even if it is doomed to defeat. It’s certainly not an issue on which Republicans would prefer to fight out the 2022 midterms.

The House Brings Back the Equal Rights Amendment