By Chris Hurst, Delegate for the 12th House District
Many Virginians would be surprised to learn that although 86% of constitutions around the world guarantee gender equality, our Constitution does not offer the same guarantee to women in
the U.S. There are over 165 million women in our country, well over half the total population, yet their rights have never been secured in our most important governing document. In 2019, Virginia will have the historic opportunity to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the last state needed to clear the path for this long-overdue guarantee of women’s rights under the law.
As we move closer to this opportunity, you may be wondering why we need an amendment now. Simply put, the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that the rights it protects are held equally by both men and women. At the time it was written, women were denied most legal rights including the right to vote, own property, keep their own wages, and have custody of their own children. The one and only women’s right that is now protected under the Constitution is the right to vote, secured by the 19th Amendment, which took almost 100 years of activism to achieve.
Our Constitution differs from legislation. It is the law of the land but is also an affirmation of the principles of our democracy and our overarching values. An amendment is necessary to guarantee, as constitutional law, that those principles – “all men are created equal”, “liberty and justice for all”, “equal justice under the law”, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – apply equally to women.
There is a common misconception that these rights are already guaranteed by the 14th Amendment as well as state and federal laws. However, the 14th Amendment was not written to guarantee protection from gender discrimination and has never been interpreted to grant equal rights on the basis of sex. State and federal legislation, as we all know, can easily change according to the political climate. Only an amendment to our Constitution can guarantee these protections and safeguard the hard-fought social and political gains made by women.
The need for the ERA is just as relevant now as it was when it was proposed in 1923. Despite many legislative gains over the years, women still earn considerably less than men in nearly every occupation, experience discriminatory treatment from employers in pregnancy and motherhood, face higher rates of poverty than men, are subjected to discriminatory methods in hiring and promotion, and encounter numerous other inequitable practices in their personal and professional lives. For women of color, these issues are even greater.
As long as women do not have the protection of the ERA, they are forced to fight long and expensive legal battles to prove their rights are equal to those of men. Lawsuits to protect women’s rights would not be necessary with the ERA, which would secure a clear constitutional mandate for gender equality. Moreover, passage of the ERA would send a strong cultural and symbolic message that all Americans, regardless of gender, are valued and equal.
Virginia can be the 38th and last vote necessary for ratification of the ERA, more than four decades after it was approved by Congress and nearly a century after it was first introduced. The ERA is neither a complex nor a political issue. The wording of the Amendment is simple and straightforward: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Women in countries as diverse as France, Japan, and Cuba enjoy equal rights under the law. There should be no controversy when women of all colors, religions, and political persuasions ask that their rights as U.S. citizens finally be recognized in our Constitution as equal to those of men. Virginia has been on the wrong side of history for the 14th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, and the 24th Amendment. As Virginians, let’s support the Equal Rights Amendment and finally include women in the Constitution once and for all.