WNC legislator, activist weigh in for passage of ERA

Black Mountain resident Roberta Madden at the North Carolina legislature last week, a long time into her battle for the ERA. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH—The Equal Rights Amendment, a landmark push to enshrine women’s equality in the U.S. Constitution, is in limbo again in North Carolina.

Under a strict reading of the rules, the two bills introduced in the state legislature this year that are aimed at reviving the ratification of ERA are no longer active, having failed to be approved by one or more chambers before the April 30 “crossover” deadline. Bills unrelated to taxes, fees or spending that didn’t pass either the House or Senate by that date is typically considered to be off the table until 2017.

But Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said she’s holding out hope that a bill to ratify the amendment could still be passed in this legislative session.

Fisher, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the state House and one of the original sponsors of the House version of the ratification bill, said the fact that it did not clear crossover greatly reduces its prospects, but since it is a constitutional amendment, there’s still some hope it could be taken up again.

“I’d like to still see if there’s still a chance,” she said. If not, she said, the bill and the effort to get the state to finally ratify the ERA is not going away.

The proposed amendment, true to many in the constitution, is simple and direct. It reads:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

But the ERA’s path to possible ratification has been anything but simple and direct.

Fits and starts

First proposed in 1923 at the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a watershed moment in the women’s rights movement, the ERA was approved by congress in 1972. The debates over ratification turned into an all-out culture war, with rights supporters saying it was essential to guaranteeing constitutional protections and opponents saying it would lead to a moral breakdown in society.

Congress put a deadline on the ratification, giving it until June 30, 1982. The measure failed to meet that deadline, falling just three states short of ratification.

Now, North Carolina is one of a half-dozen states where ERA supporters, many of whom worked on the fight for the bill in the 1970s, have restarted the campaign to pass it.

The movement is based on a legal analysis after another constitutional amendment, on hold while awaiting ratification for more than 200 years, was finally adopted. Supporters saw that as a sign that a congressional deadline may not have been as hard and fast as once thought. Legal scholars have differed on whether it is.

Fisher said the fight and the women who have not given up have been inspiring. In addition to a push for ratification, this year the ERA proved to be a touchstone for a host of gender equity issues, Fisher said, from pay equity to highlighting the impact of cuts to the state earned income tax credit and social welfare programs that disproportionally hurt women.

“It’s drawn our attention and helped us focus on other issues that resonate with women,” she said.

Lighting fires

Among the many things Roberta Madden brought with her when she moved to Black Mountain about five years ago was an unwavering belief that one day she’d see the ERA become part of the Constitution.

This year, Madden helped organize the state’s western region in a statewide effort get a ratification bill introduced in the legislature.

In an interview with Carolina Public Press after a round of lobbying at the legislature in late April, she put this year’s fight in context.

Part of the job, she said, is to sound reminders of the reasons for the amendment and get more people, especially younger women, to understand what it is all about.

“The biggest problem is the lack of awareness,” Madden said. “A lot of people think it passed a long time ago or that it’s totally dead. Neither one of those is correct.”

The deadline set by Congress is in the preamble to the amendment, and there’s a hope that the so-called three state strategy, in which the final three states sign on and Congress declares the measure ratified, could work, she said.

Although there are strong headwinds against ratification, Madden said, there’s hope and some solace in the growing effort nationwide to revive the amendment.

“Some other states have been working on this, so we’re not by ourselves,” she said. “The Illinois senate just recently passed it. The Virginia senate has passed it three times, but each time it get stuck in the house. Nevada just introduced it, and Florida is also active. So there’s a lot of activity going on all over the county.”

Madden said she was was disappointed that, despite having almost one-third of the state House signed up as co-sponsors, a discussion on the bill wasn’t allowed even at the committee level. Her trip to Raleigh was, in part, to stand with colleagues across the state to protest the bill not getting a hearing in a single House committee.

“It surprises me that they can sit on a bill and not even schedule a hearing,” she said.

But there have been many disappointments before in her 40 years fighting for the amendment. She remembered clearly when the congressional deadline passed with the ERA still short of ratification.

“It was a very dark day,” she said. “We had three more to go. We’ve had our hearts broken a lot of times.”

Afterward, the struggle continued with efforts on equal pay, reproductive rights and alleviating poverty.

Then, in 1992, when the 27th amendment was ratified after almost 203 years, “there was a new ray of hope,” Madden said.

She said she became involved in the movement for women’s rights when she witnessed her mother being turned down for a promotion she deserved.

“She was philosophical about it. She said, ‘Well that’s the way it is. If I’d have been a man I’d have gotten it,’” Madden said. “That kind of lit a fire in me.”

The fire is still there, she said, when she thinks about the world she wants to see her for granddaughter, who is starting graduate school in the fall, and the challenges her generation still faces. So, Madden remains focused on putting this amendment through in North Carolina.

The alternative, she said, is to begin all over again, starting from scratch with a new amendment.

“That could take another 92 years,” she said. “I don’t have that kind of time.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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