Women’s Equality Day: Looking back and moving forward on constitutional equality
In 1971 — exactly 50 years ago — the indomitable feminist and fellow New Yorker, Rep. Bella Abzug, introduced a bill to establish Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The holiday commemorates the Aug. 26, 1920 certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
But suffrage was never the final goal of our feminist foremothers. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified 101 years ago, suffragist leader Alice Paul, who is a relative of my late husband, immediately went to work to write the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She believed the ERA was the essential next step towards achieving gender equality in this country. In 1920, she said, “It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun.”
The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, and the amendment was re-introduced in every session of Congress until 1972. With the women’s equality movement at the forefront, on Oct. 12, 1971, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the ERA by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 354‐23 to enshrine gender equality into the Constitution. The Senate passed the ERA in 1972, and Congress sent it to the states for ratification. Alice Paul fought for the ERA until she was on her deathbed in 1977. Unfortunately, in 1982 the congressionally extended timeline expired, and the ERA stalled — only three states short of ratification.
Fortunately, some of us never gave up on the amendment, and as a result, the ERA has had a modern renaissance. Over the last four years, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia have all ratified the ERA, bringing us to the 38 states needed for ratification. Yet because of a questionable legal opinion issued by the Trump administration, the ERA has still not been certified. We are still waiting, just like our suffragist mothers before us, for our rights to be permanently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Women’s equality cannot wait another century. That’s why I have been proud to join over 200 of my congressional colleagues on a bill to remove the arbitrary deadline from the ERA. In March 2021, I also re-introduced the ERA in the House, as I have in every session of Congress since 1997. Equal rights for women are necessary in every democracy, and I will not stop until we finally see ourselves reflected in our most foundational document.
Unfortunately, the truth is the United States is falling behind when it comes to women’s equality. 85% of U.N. member states already have constitutions that explicitly guarantee equality for women and girls. In these countries, including a gender provision in the constitution has led to remarkable progress.
Take for example Tanzania, where the Court of Appeals used Article 13 of that country’s constitution, which guarantees equality on the basis of sex like the ERA will, to strike down a law that had allowed girls to be married at the age of 15. Nigeria’s Supreme Court used its equal rights amendment to invalidate inheritance laws that denied daughters equal inheritance rights. Case studies from France, Costa Rica, Argentina, and many other nations have shown that legislative body gender quotas facilitated by these nations’ constitutions have led to a significant increase in women’s level of political participation.
Throughout our history, the United States has been a leader in women’s rights and breaking barriers for women. But to truly live up to that legacy, we need to catch up to where much of the world already is—by adding 24 simple words to our Constitution: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
This Women’s Equality Day, let’s not leave it up to the next Congress to pass the ERA. This is the year we knock down any unnecessary obstacle to ensure that equal rights for women are enshrined in the Constitution once and for all. As Alice Paul herself once said, “there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”
Carolyn Maloney is chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee.