Is Now the Right Time for ERA?

In 1978, 100,000 women marched on Washington demanding equal rights. Over the next few years they signed petitions, held walkathons, and staged hunger strikes. But only 35 of the needed 38 states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment by the 1982 deadline. Today, a renewed effort is underway to add the amendment (now called the Women's Equality Amendment) to the Constitution, headed by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Though its supporters have reintroduced the bill every year since 1982, they believe that with the power shift toward the Democrats, the time is right to add language guaranteeing that "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 House has a record 202 cosponsors for the bill, but congressional hearings have yet to be scheduled.) According to Maloney, "This is something that should have happened a long time ago." But feminists are mostly responding with a collective shrug. "I think the ERA is great, but I don't know that it's going to make real-life changes for women," says Jessica Valenti, author of the blog Feministing.com."It may be that people think of it as a symbolic gesture."

The bigger question may be what it symbolizes. "Younger women run from the word 'feminist' without quite knowing why, or what the word has stood for," writes Deborah Siegel in "Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild." "The movement's architects are aging, some are dying, and the names of others are hardly known." According to a 2005 CBS News poll, while 69 percent of women said the women's movement had made their lives better—compared with 43 percent in 1997—only 24 percent said they considered themselves feminists. Almost 80 percent were uncertain who Gloria Steinem is. Steinem, whose name was once synonymous with ERA-era feminism, is in her 70s, and feminist icons Betty Friedan, Andrea Dworkin and Shirley Chisholm have died in the past few years.

Will anyone fill their shoes? Young feminists point to the blogosphere. But some older feminists say a blog is not the same thing as a unified social movement. Despite signs of progress—Hillary Clinton is the current Democratic presidential front runner, Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House and college-educated women in some urban areas earn more than their male peers—older feminists worry that many gains of the movement, like reproductive rights, are being eroded by conservatives. "Rumors of our progress are greatly exaggerated," says Maloney. "The time to move forward is now."

But agreeing on how to move forward might be challenging for a generation who can interpret "Girls Gone Wild" videos as self-empowering. "There is a kind of popular, populist feminism that says let's have fun," says historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History." "I can see the argument, except it seems like some of us worked really hard to develop a world in which women weren't just sex objects."

Susan Faludi, author of 1991's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" and the new "The Terror Dream" suggests that a consumer-driven culture has shifted the discussion from talk of liberation to talk of self-improvement, where purchasing replaces protests. "The idea of women as public actors, not just private players, has been replaced by ersatz feminism where you're free to buy whatever push-up bra you want," she says.

Older feminists worry that ERA-era feminism's declaration that "the personal is political" has been lost on the latest generation, who don't realize that their personal struggles should be addressed collectively. "If you don't have the idea that you can make a claim on society, then you're on your own. And that's what happened," says Katha Pollitt, feminist author, whose latest book is "Learning to Drive." "Take this mommy-war thing. If we all had access to day care, would we be having a different kind of conversation?"

The space for that conversation may be the Internet, on sites like Feministing, Feministe, Pandagon and Echidne of the Snakes. Valenti of Feministing.com says feminist blogs drove the million-plus turnout at the 2004 March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., and helped secure the opening earlier this month of a controversial Planned Parenthood clinic in Aurora, Ill. But even if blogging can translate into real-world activism, will it be enough to hold a movement together? That's a question this generation of feminists will have to answer themselves.

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