By Lynn Yeakel
On May 30, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA) roughly 95 years after it was initially proposed in 1923. The Illinois vote brings the ERA just one vote shy of the 38 states required to approve an amendment to the U.S. Constitution—or does it?
To explore this question and the issues at play with the ERA, let’s go back to the beginning.
What’s the origin of the ERA?
Soon after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1920, giving American women the right to vote, one of its primary proponents decided to take on a larger battle for equality for women beyond voting. Suffragist Alice Paul wrote the first draft of what became known as the ERA, proposing it in 1923 as the next step in ensuring “equal justice under law” for all citizens.
What happened next?
Nearly 50 years after its initial introduction, in 1972 Congress overwhelmingly approved the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification. It takes approval by 38 state legislatures—three-quarters of the states—to ratify an amendment to the Constitution. A seven-year deadline, later extended to 10 years to 1982, was imposed by Congress for passage.
On June 30, 1982, time ran out with only 35 states on board—three short of the number required to add the ERA to the Constitution. The following month, on July 14, 1982, the ERA was reintroduced in Congress, and it has been before every session of Congress since then. Recent bills have imposed no deadline on the ratification process.
If the deadline to ratify the ERA expired in 1982, do the recent votes from Illinois and Nevada count towards the required number of 38?
The short answer: maybe. Although the original ratification deadline expired 36 years ago, there are some political workarounds for the ERA to become part of the Constitution:
- Congress could vote to change the previous deadline.
- It could mimic the 27th Amendment, also known as the “Madison Amendment,” which took 203 years to become law. In 1789, James Madison proposed that a sitting Congress should not be allowed to give itself a raise during its session. It was passed by Congress but not ratified until 1992 following a grassroots campaign to finally make it federal law. Supporters of the ERA argue that, similar to the 27th Amendment, the ERA that was reintroduced in Congress in July 1982, and in each session since, does not stipulate a time limit for states to ratify it.
What would the ERA do?
That depends on whom you ask.
The ERA states “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Supporters argue that it’s necessary to have broad, inclusive protection that would cover all U.S. citizens against sex discrimination. But opponents of the ERA argue that it’s not necessary because women are already protected under other federal and state laws that have been passed since the amendment was first drafted in the 1920s.
What do you think?
In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and in a year when a record number of women are running for office, it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing a surge in momentum for the ERA What happens next should be determined by the will and engagement of our citizenry. That’s why exercising our right to vote is so important.