What the…?

Illinois is moving toward ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yes, the federal ERA. It has been voted out of committee and has the support of 3 of the 4 top leaders in Illinois’ Democratic General Assembly. If Illinois ratified the amendment, it would be the 36th state to do so — just two shy of the 38 needed to secure the amendment.

This will be interesting to watch for several reasons.

In the first place, the ERA has been assumed dead because Congress set a deadline for its ratification which expired in 1982. However, after passage of the Madison Amendment in 1992 (concerning Congressional pay raises — it was ratified 203 years after first being sent to the states), ERA supporters adopted the three state strategy. The goal is to get 3 more states to ratify the ERA, and then mount a court challenge of Congress’s power to set a time limit for ratification.

The Illinois effort is more significant still. The 1981-1982 battle in the Illinois legislature over the ERA is usually construed as the end of the road for the ERA. Both opponents and supporters of the ERA used their most extreme weapons in Illinois. Supporters spilled pig blood on the floor in the capitol building, writing the names of the most recalcitrant assembly members in the blood. Opponents changed the rules of statecraft, requiring that 3/5 of the Illinois assembly vote for the amendment in order to ratify it (previously, a simple majority was all that was necessary).

What do I think of the ERA? Well, in an ideal world it wouldn’t be needed. The protection of the 14th amendment would suffice. However, this isn’t an ideal world. Setting aside all the (really important) cultural disparities between the sexes, women still earn 3/4 of what men do — even when differences in skills, education and experience are taken into account, women make 4/5 of what men make*. I think the ERA is necessary.

However, I don’t really buy the 3 state strategy — in 1921 the Supreme Court affirmed the power of Congress to set such limits (after the passage of the 18th Amendment — the Prohibition Amendment — which included a time limit). And given the current temper of the court, I think this would be a particularly difficult argument to win right now. But you never know about these things — I do think this battle is worth the effort.

* I once had a student tell me that 4/5 was near parity and that feminists shouldn’t worry about attaining that last fifth — that it wasn’t worth the effort. I pointed out that making up that last fifth would require giving women (on average) a 25% raise in pay. I’d do a lot for a 25% raise, wouldn’t you?

Posted on February 7th, 2003 by Katxena