It was hard to tell if it was the past or the future being played out Thursday at the state Capitol when a few dozen women rallied on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment.
If you are of a certain age, or you’ve taken an American history course in the last few decades, you’ll recall that the Equal Rights Amendment was designed to constitutionally protect the rights of women, from the workplace to the homefront. In 1972, the amendment passed through Congress and was forwarded to the states. Thirty-five states, including Minnesota, quickly ratified the amendment — but 38 were needed to make it part of the Constitution.
In the end, the amendment was defeated by fear. If the ERA passes, we’ll have unisex bathrooms. If the ERA passes, men will lose their God-given authority to be heads of households. If the ERA passes, women will be forced into combat. If the ERA passes, government will be telling businesses they have to pay women as much as men.
Rosemary Rocco, retired from a career in health care, was among those attending Thursday’s rally. She shakes her head at all the old fears that eventually ground down the ERA’s momentum.
Recently, she said, she did some bottom-line analyzing of what the failure to pass the ERA cost her in the ensuing decades. Statistics show that women are paid 78 cents to every dollar paid to a man. That means, she said, the pay disparity cost her a minimum of $375,000 over the decades. And because Social Security is based on earnings, she figures that women like her are still are being shortchanged compared to men.
But Rocco looked around the room where the rally was being staged and saw hope. Not only were there old-timers from the first ERA fight present, but there were a substantial number of collegians. “This is an issue that seems to be getting the attention of the millennials,’’ Rocco said. “They understand it. Look, young women are coming out of college with the same debt that young men are. They have the same debt, but they still will get paid less.’’
A cross-section of women — young, old, women of color, politicians, military vets — were at the rally, which Kathy Magnuson, a publisher of Minnesota Women’s Press, said represented “the most excitement” she’s seen around the ERA in years. But the political mountains in front of the effort to revive an old idea are huge.
For starters, there are no Republicans in Minnesota outwardly supporting the effort — one national, one statewide — that was begun Thursday. Betty Folliard, a former DFL legislator who’s a founder of ERA MN, said that initially at least a few House Republicans were ready to publicly support the effort, but that they pulled their names from authorship of bills because of pressure from their caucus leadership. The scuttlebutt is that anti-abortion elements of the GOP still oppose the ERA.
Given the GOP’s majority control of the Minnesota House, there can be no progress on ERA without GOP support. “But we are going to get this conversation going,” said Folliard. “People have been working on this for 93 years, we’re not going to stop now.” (The ERA was proposed by Alice Paul in 1923.)
Here’s the process that has begun in both the House and Senate in Minnesota: Resolutions are being presented “memorializing Congress to remove the deadline for ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.’’
In the 1970s, a “sunset’’ provision became part of the ERA process, a provision that essentially said that if the amendment was not passed by 1979 (later extended to 1982), the actions of the 35 states that had ratified the amendment would be erased.
Just a wild guess here, but it seems unlikely that Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will embrace any resolutions tht bring the ERA back to life. “But we’re in this for the long haul,’’ said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.
The second part of the ERA push in Minnesota will be for the state legislature to pass a proposed state ERA amendment. (It takes a majority in both houses to put an amendment proposal on the ballot.)
Again, because the GOP controls the House, such a proposal seems unlikely to pass. On the other hand, opposing an ERA amendment does present political problems for Republicans, given the importance women play in Minnesota elections, not to mention the party’s efforts in making inroads with working class voters.
As Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, pointed out, women of color are hit hardest by the pay disparities between men and women. The income gap between white women and men is 20 percent, Moran said. The gap between Asian American women and white men is 26 percent. It’s 38 percent between black women and white men, and a staggering 43 percent between Latino women and white men. Moran pointed out that the U.S. is one of three industrialized nations that don’t guarantee paid paternity leave.
Many of the women present Thursday are long-time soldiers in this fight. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, was a first-term state representative who had the opportunity to cast a vote supporting ratification of the amendment in 1973.
But also on hand were such people as Katie Spoder, a year out of the College of St. Benedict, and Lauren Lutgens, a St. Ben’s sophomore. Spoder, laughing and holding an ERA placard, noted that until recently, the ERA was “just something we talked about in a history course.”