Story by Bernadette Cahill
Editor’s note: Bernadette Cahill is a long-time contributor to High Country Press and High Country Magazine, where she often reported on work to promote the Equal Rights Amendment in the High Country. She is author of Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party and the Vote: The First Civil Rights Campaign of the 20th Century (McFarland: Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015), in which she dealt not only with the 19th Amendment votes for women victory, but also the history of the ERA until 2015. She currently lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi, completing a history of the women’s suffrage campaign during Reconstruction.
A great opportunity for North Carolina to make a unique mark on national history emerged on Wednesday, May 30, 2018 with the passage by Illinois of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The Amendment 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.”
Illinois is the 37th state to ratify, following Nevada as the 36th in March 2017 – the first to do so since 1982, when the original ratification push died because of Congressional imposition of deadlines on the amendment process. No such deadlines are required by Article V of the Constitution.
Now, only one more state is needed to ratify and position the ERA to become part of the Constitution. Currently one of the unratified states, North Carolina could secure a unique place in U.S. history as the state taking the Amendment over the finish line, especially with the General Assembly in session. North Carolina rejected ratification of the ERA, despite intense lobbying, during the early ratification push between 1972 and the final deadline on June 30, 1982.
North Carolina’s competition are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia, with ERA bills introduced in recent years in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.
The leader of the National Woman’s Party, Alice Paul, who, among others, was tortured by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1917 when imprisoned for peaceful demonstrations outside the White House for women’s right to vote, launched the ERA in 1923.
She devised the new amendment to prohibit sex discrimination under the U.S. Constitution, just as race discrimination had been prohibited under the Constitution with the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870 – when women’s attempts to have “sex” included were dismissed.
In North Carolina, bills were filed in the Senate (SB 85) and House (HB 102) in February 2017 to ratify, but they went nowhere. The Assembly heard from “hundreds of concerned citizens … Nevertheless, the Rules Committees stubbornly refused to hold hearings or even to consider the ERA, which had met the same ignominious fate in the 2015 legislative session,” wrote Roberta Madden last summer in the Citizen Times of Asheville. Madden has spoken several times on the ERA in Boone. She is co-president of ERA-NC, which has been advocating passage of the ERA in North Carolina for the past decade.
Ratification would strengthen cases in equal pay, equal opportunity, equality before the law and other areas of dispute, where the discrimination is said to be “on account of sex.” Currently, “Without constitutional protection, laws and policies can be, and increasingly are, repealed or undone at the whim of lawmakers and government agencies,” wrote Madden.
Because of the deadline on ratification imposed by Congress in 1972 – firstly for seven years, later extended until 1982 – there has been considerable debate whether any recent or new ratifications will indeed mean that equality on account of sex will finally become part of the Constitution.
However, because of the Madison Amendment, which passed after nearly 203 years, and the fact that the deadline is written into the preamble of the ERA, counsel within the federal bureaucracy have said that the ERA is still viable and that the final three states required between 1982 and 2017, would constitute passage. Now with the Illinois and Nevada ratifications, with one more the Amendment should require only certification by the Secretary of State for it to become the 28th Amendment.
If North Carolina could ratify the ERA in the current session, it would win permanent national accolades for pushing the 95-year-old proposal over the finish line – much like Tennessee’s unique position in history today as the final required ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
The ERA has already been negotiating the ratification process longer than any amendment except the Madison Amendment, which became the 27th Amendment in 1992, having been launched in 1789.
For further information about ERA-NC contact Marena Groll and Roberta Madden, ERA-NC co-presidents, [email protected]
For the Equal Rights Amendment, click to: http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/