No, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Not a 'Feminist Handout' | Opinion

On the day Virginia officially voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment earlier this month, becoming the crucial 38th state to do so, I listened to a male colleague explain his opposition to what he deemed "feminist" messaging—specifically, a political campaign touting the fact that a woman was first to accomplish something in her field. A "feminist" angle, he argued, was anything but persuasive to a general audience.

"It's a turnoff," he said. "Just another woman looking for a handout."

A familiar flurry of rage spun in my chest. Why is it "feminist" to celebrate an accomplishment, and why is praising a woman so off-putting? Yet it was good for me to hear his argument—because he is not alone.

In response to an op-ed I wrote arguing that tampons are necessary and therefore should be tax-exempt, like other necessities, one commenter wrote, "Life sucks for everyone. I'm so sick of it being just about women. Get over it."

Touché. Sincerely. Life does "suck" for everyone.

I am a feminist, born and raised in Utah. I am acutely aware that the word "feminism" has negative connotations for some people, including my colleague. Regardless, the word was born of need, not desire. A need for women to have a voice in a society, culture and legal system that have historically suppressed them.

Today, that need remains and is measurable. American women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In my home state, that number is 70 cents on the dollar. One in four experiences domestic violence during her lifetime. The vast majority report having been victims of sexual harassment or assault. And many lose jobs after becoming pregnant or having children.

The only right explicitly guaranteed to women in the U.S. Constitution is the right to vote. Other women's rights are not specifically recognized, nor guaranteed in that document, allowing legal discrimination on the basis of sex to persist. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't."

That is what the Equal Rights Amendment is about.

Suffragist Alice Paul recognized this need when she announced in 1923 that she was working for a new constitutional amendment on gender equality. She was in her 80s when Congress finally passed it in 1972, only to delay it further by requiring ratification by three-quarters of U.S. states for approval. We have now reached that milestone, nearly a century after Paul's initial advocacy.

By now, the overwhelming majority of Americans support the ERA, including a majority in conservative states like Utah. Yet obstacles continue to prevent the amendment from being added to the U.S. Constitution.

A deadline for 38 states to approve the amendment expired in 1982. And this month, the Justice Department published an opinion noting that Virginia was far too late. "Should Congress wish to propose the amendment anew, it may do so," the department wrote.

Federal courts will likely determine what happens to the ERA next, and their deliberations will take into account lingering concerns and fears.

Some question what the word "sex" means—is it more than just women and men? Some see this as a "feminist handout" or fret about issues that fall outside this amendment, like abortion. Others worry about women in the draft. And there are old concerns like same-sex marriage, shared bathrooms.... The list goes on.

The ERA does not exclude men. In truth, it includes them. And protects them as well as it does women. "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," it says.

Equal Rights Amendment women's activist
An activist holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a news conference on women’s rights April 30, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty

The feminism I practice hopes that with work—culturally, socially, academically, legislatively, professionally—the word "feminism" will have its place only in history books. The word will have lost all meaning in a future society in which gender equality is the norm. Not women before men. And not men before women.

Someone dear to me recently voiced his hesitation about the ERA. He noted that well-intentioned policies sometimes lead to serious unintentional outcomes, possibly replacing years of court precedent with a huge question mark.

I understand that any change to the Constitution can be unnerving and bring unknowns. But women's rights must be recognized in our nation's primary legal document. We cannot risk leaving that determination to individual judges.

It is time. Our nation will not look that much different after the ERA is ratified—just better. Our daughters and sons better protected and their futures more secure. It is up to our generation to ensure the final ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Emily Bell McCormick is the owner of a boutique communication and advocacy consulting firm and founder of the Policy Project, a group working to implement healthy policy in the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

No, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Not a 'Feminist Handout' | Opinion | Opinion