Recently, Virginia became the 38th of the United States to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s been a long-fought battle for proponents of dismantling all barriers to women achieving full and complete equality with males. Earlier this month supporters became ecstatic when both chambers of the Virginia state house approved the amendment.
“We must begin to see a world without discrimination of any kind,” declared Virginia State Senator Mamie Locke. “Equality based on sex is not just good for women, it is good for society.”
Ratification of the ERA reached a critical flashpoint in the 1970s, as more women entered the workforce and began seeking higher levels of education than at any time in U.S. history. When Congress submitted the ERA to the states for ratification in 1972, it gave it a March 1979 deadline for 38 states to ratify it. They didn’t make it. In 1979, however, the U.S. Congress gave the ERA three more years to get ratified. Again, it didn’t succeed. By then, most judicial and legislative experts declared the amendment dead. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, the only court to review it, acknowledged that.
Proponents remained undeterred. The slew of legal machinations born of this ongoing effort is astounding, which is understandable. Our education system often discusses our founding fathers, but – outside of Betsy Ross – says little about our founding mothers. Yes, men devised and built much of the infrastructure and technology that has helped the United States become a wealthy, powerful nation. The same is true for most other developed countries. But women have been at the forefront of change and progress as well. To deny their impact is essentially telling only half of the story.
Still, ERA critics state the ratification process has been unnecessarily complicated and even unconstitutional. Others point to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which includes the term “equal protection of the laws,” and often refers to citizenship matters. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (undoubtedly the most progressive of all the Court’s judges) opined that any attempt to ratify the ERA would mean starting over again.
But, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for; you might just get it. Full gender equality doesn’t just mean equal pay for equal work – which has been the crux of the argument. It could also mean certain employment standards would have to be adjusted or eliminated. For example, one could argue that physical fitness requirements for firefighters could be declared illegal based strictly on gender. Some women may be able to meet those particular goals, while a number of men couldn’t.
A new argument that has arisen is that the ERA will prevent pro-life advocates and groups from protesting abortion, which is generally aimed at women. It’s a dubious claim at best. Perhaps some birth control methods could come under greater scrutiny. Since birth control pills and IUD’s are consumed primarily by women, does that mean they will have to be deregulated and sold over-the-counter like condoms? Or will condoms become available only by prescription? That’s a disaster waiting to happen!
I personally want to see how ERA advocates react to women being compelled to abide by Selective Service. Currently, all able-bodied, able-minded males in the U.S. are required to register for Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday. There’s no penalty for late registration, but there are a slew for non-registration. Men who don’t register usually can’t enter college or get financial aid. In some places, they can’t even graduate from high school, or could have their diploma rescinded. They can’t obtain federal job training, or get jobs within the federal government. All men who immigrate to the U.S. before their 26th birthday must register in order to garner full citizenship. Failure to register is a felonious offense and punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Selective Service is the most blatant and deliberate form of gender discrimination. The education penalties alone are violations of Title IX, an act passed by Congress in 1972 and directed towards ending gender imbalances in the education system (mainly college). Contemporary feminists had argued that all-male schools, for example, are unconstitutional if they receive federal funding. But, as I see it, Title IX means nothing, since Selective Service permits discrimination against males.
The Selective Service system refers, of course, to a military draft, which has not been in place in the U.S. since 1973. While it basically means all young men must be available for compulsory military service, it actually means that group is expendable. When the concept of women serving in combat positions in military conflicts arose, many people expressed horror at the thought of women coming home critically disabled or in body bags – as if we’ve made our peace with men returning in the same conditions. Selective Service, therefore, makes young males cannon fodder. Even some disabled men have to register for the draft; that is, if they can leave their dwelling under their own power. If disabled men have to register, why shouldn’t able-bodied women be required to do the same?
How will the ERA affect family leave policies in the American workplace? Most health insurance policies require coverage for pregnancy, and most companies allow for X amount of time off to care for a newborn. But very few companies maintain paternity leave, and I don’t believe any insurance policies plans consider such time a medical issue. Will pregnancy no longer be considered a unique medical condition, but rather, something chronic like diabetes?
Will the Violence Against Women Act have to be restructured to include men, or will it be eliminated altogether? First enacted in 1994, the VAWA seeks to improve criminal justice and community responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the United States. In effect, it’s also a highly sexist piece of legislation because it assumes either that only adult females are the victims of violence or that adult females are the only victims of violence who matter. The law has been amended in recent years to include lesbian and transgender women – as if men, again, aren’t worth the trouble or should just be left to fend for themselves with laws and processes that don’t really help.
Currently in the U.S. vehicle insurance rates are slanted against males. Most companies will lower insurance rates for females when they reach the age of 21, but only for males when they reach 25. Men can earn lower insurance rates if they marry or have children. Years ago women often couldn’t enter into a contractual agreement without a man as cosigner. That’s now illegal, but will the ERA render the insurance rates’ gender disparities invalid?
Aside from forcing women into the military alongside men, one bloodcurdling fear among social conservatives is that the ERA will compel society to establish unisex public lavatories. Early opponents seemed to focus on this in particular. If that happens, will locker rooms fall to gender equality next? Will doctors be forbidden from letting prospective parents know the gender of their baby after a sonogram?
As a writer, I wonder what the ERA might do to language. It’s more common now to use the term humanity instead of mankind. Will gender-specific pronouns fall out of favor or – worst – be outlawed?
How will the transgendered be impacted by the ERA? Growing up there were only two genders: female and male. Now we have such classifications as non-binary and cisgender. Excuse me?
I know some of these issues seem almost comical, but we really have to think about what gender equality means. I fully believe women are just as capable as men, when it comes to professional matters, such as business and law enforcement. But men and women each possess qualities that are generally unique to our respective gender. Neither set of attributes is superior to the other; they’re meant to work in concert with one another. I’ve always said that, if gender and racial oppression hadn’t been in place for so long, we might have made it to the moon 200 or more years ago. Telephones, motor vehicles and television could be ancient equipment by now.
But alas, our world hadn’t become that progressive until recently. Still, aside from restroom signs and military deployments, gender is not always fluid and malleable.
What does gender equality mean to you?