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ERA DOA? The Fight For Equal Rights Lives On In Missouri

(Peggy Lowe/KCUR)

  It was a chant from a different era.

“ERA now! ERA now! ERA now!”

As much as it sounded straight out of the past, the rallying cry was used Tuesday as a coalition of women’s groups marched to the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on Equal Pay Day, the day marking how far into a new year it takes a woman to earn what a man took home last year.

The debate over equal rights for women is nothing new — it’s been going on since women first started pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. And even before that, during the suffrage days.

But here’s some news many people may not remember: that proposed constitutional amendment called the Equal Rights Amendment never passed. And some women in Missouri are still working on it.

“My mother was doing this in ’72,” said Shelly LaRose of Holt, Mo., one of the organizers of Equal Rights Action Day. “So yeah, it’s sad that we’re still here doing it again. And we’re not there. We’re still not there.”

With support from then President Nixon, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 with little controversy. The constitutional amendment – a total of 52 words – says equal rights may not be denied “on account of sex.”

A flurry of states ratified it the first year, including Kansas but not Missouri. Then the abortion issue took center stage nationally.

“After the U. S. Supreme Court passed Roe vs. Wade in 1973, there seemed to be something of a feminism backlash, if you will, and part of that carried over to the ERA,” said Lisa Mazzie, a Marquette University associate law professor.

Opponents turned the ERA into an odd political debate, with people arguing about women serving in combat and men and women sharing unisex bathrooms, she said.

“Because the amendment talked about sex instead of gender – used the word ‘sex’ instead of ‘gender’ – then there were concerns about this would allow (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) people to marry,” Mazzie said, “that all these travesty things would happen if the Equal Rights Amendment passed.”

Credit (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)
The marchers ended up at a rally in front of the statehouse, chanting together "ERA now! ERA now!"

Those arguments were made by Phyllis Schlafly, another Missouri woman made famous – and infamous – for her campaign against the ERA. Now, at age 89, she is still using the arguments she used back in the 1970s. As the founder of the Eagle Forum, based in St. Louis, Schlafly credits herself with creating the modern “family values” movement and dates it to 1972. 

“Putting sex in the Constitution? It seems to me that the gays would be the only ones who would gain by that,” Schlafly said in a phone interview. “Because the Equal Rights Amendment does not mention women. It only mentions putting sex in the Constitution.”

Since then, of course, women in combat, family restrooms and gay marriage have come to pass without the ERA. But back in the 70’s, Schlafly’s argument worked and the plan died in 1982, when just 35 of the needed 38 states ratified the amendment. 

On the same day as the women’s action day in Jefferson City, an anti-abortion group was singing on the steps of St. Peter Catholic Church. Numbering about three dozen, they were a much smaller group as they later silently marched on the opposite side of the street as the roughly equal rights advocates.

Anti-abortion groups have made gains in some state legislatures in recent years, adding more twists and turns to Roe vs. Wade. And they are exactly why many women’s groups argue that an Equal Rights Amendment is needed. 

Credit (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)
Some of the marchers at the Equal Rights Action Day chose vintage protest signs, including this one from the women's rights' campaigns of the 1970s.

Women are covered by several laws that bar discrimination in the workplace, like Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause has been applied to sex discrimination, but at least one conservative Supreme Court justice has said that amendment doesn’t protect against gender bias.

(For a detailed legal history of the ERA, Lisa Mazzie’s writing is here.)

ERA supporters argue that it is needed as a clear standard for state and federal legal cases, to keep reproductive rights intact and to help women get better pay,

“I personally believe it needs to be in the Constitution because then it’s carved in stone,” LaRose said.

Missouri was one of the 15 states that did not pass the ERA and it’s now part of what’s being called the “three-state strategy.” Groups like the American Association of University Women believe that if they get those last three states to ratify the ERA, they will meet the 38 required by law. Others argue that 1982 deadline has passed and women's groups should just start over from the beginning.

Emma Louhman of St. Louis, traveled to the state capital this week thinking she would be marching for pro-choice issues. Then the 17-year-old, like many others, learned that the Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.

“It’s kind of an eye opener in a way,” she said. “Because I always thought things are better,  things are OK, women are equal. And they really aren’t. I don’t feel comfortable living in a country where we’re not equal to everyone else.”

Emma may be waiting a lot longer. Although an ERA ratification plan has been introduced in both houses of the Missouri legislature, it’s expected to die. That leaves the ERA in the same shape it’s been in for decades: lingering but not law.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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