I often experienced sex discrimination in my experience of living in several different states over the past 86 years. In Louisiana, I couldn’t get a credit card in my own name, nor even a library card; and I was excluded from jury service. In Tennessee, I was paid 57% of the wages earned by men for the same job. Despite some improvements in women’s status — we may now serve on juries, even get credit in our own names, and take home 83.7 cents for every dollar a man does — sex discrimination remains. The recent reversal of women’s reproductive rights after decades of constitutional protection is a glaring example. Until the Equal Rights Amendment goes into the U.S. Constitution, women were not guaranteed equality under the law.
One hundred years ago, at the urging of Alice Paul, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress. It was a proposal to amend the Constitution with these words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The wording tracks that of the suffrage amendment, which became the 19th Amendment in 1920. White (but not Black) North Carolina women could then vote, but our state did not ratify the suffrage amendment until 1971, just behind Mississippi.
Even so, an active women’s movement bloomed in North Carolina in the 1970s. The N.C. House passed ERA ratification in 1977, but it failed in the Senate by only two votes. For the next four decades, the movement was relatively quiet. Nearly 40 years later, the ERA movement came roaring back to unratified states, including North Carolina. The mass media have largely snubbed today’s widespread feminist activity; after all, it’s only about women.
Article V of the Constitution requires that two-thirds of both houses of Congress must approve a proposed amendment — a requirement the ERA met in 1972. Then, in order to add it to the Constitution, three-fourths of the state legislatures (38 states) must ratify it. However, Sen. Sam Ervin placed a 1979 deadline into the preamble, although not in the ERA itself. Congress later extended this time limit to 1982, but no other states ratified until Nevada did so in 2017, Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in 2020 — bringing the total of ratified states to the required 38. However, because of the disputed deadline, ERA opponents claimed the last three ratifications didn’t count.
Nationally, as well as in our state, women’s equality was a very popular cause. A recent poll conducted by Meredith College found that 71.5% of North Carolinians support the ERA (86% of Democrats and nearly 62% of Republicans). The national ERA Coalition, founded in 2014, has nearly 300 partners representing 80,000 people in support of the amendment. The ERA-NC Alliance is a strong force for equality.
In March, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing — the first in 40 years — on S.J.Res. 4, in which proponents argued that the arbitrary deadline does not apply and that the ERA has met all requirements to be enshrined in the Constitution. On behalf of the ERA-NC Alliance, I submitted testimony to the committee. On April 27, a bipartisan majority, 51-47, voted for the measure — short of the 60 votes required. Sen. Tillis and Burr voted against equality for women. The Senate is expected to reconsider the measure and repair the damage.
Meanwhile, in our N.C. General Assembly, the ERA was introduced once again on March 9, in observance of Women’s Equal PayDay, as it has been in every session since 2015. Every time, it was shunted to the Rules Committee, “where bills go to die,” never receiving a vote. Across the state, women and supportive men continue working for equal rights despite the ignorance and apathy of the mass media and many politicians.
Imagine equal rights guaranteed for women and men in the U.S. Constitution—an idea whose time has come, again, again and again.
The opinions and perspectives expressed in NC Talks columns are those of the authors. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity. They do not purport to reflect the views of Carolina Public Press, its staff, board of directors or contributors. To contribute an editorial or opinion piece, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a brief summary of the topic, your full name and location.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? If you find an error or a response, please let us know at email@example.com.