House Digs Into Equal Rights Law 96 Years in the Making

WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly a century after suffragist Alice Paul first proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to outlaw sex discrimination, the actress Patricia Arquette joined lawmakers Tuesday to finally follow through on the Equal Rights Amendment.

“This is pure and simple,” Representative Carolyn Maloney said at a hearing this morning of the House Judiciary Committee. “We want 54 words added to the Constitution of the United States because every other industrialized country in the world already has it in [theirs].”

It took 49 years for Congress to pass the amendment Paul wrote in 1923, but ratification by the states has been similarly arduous. Illinois became the 37th state to ratify in 2018, but the two-thirds requirement for amendment ratification stayed just out of reach when Virginia fumbled an attempt this past January to become No. 38.

Just as she has at the start of every Congressional session since 1992, Maloney made a bid the same month to restart the ratification process. Buoyed by interest from the #MeToo movement, Representative Jackie Speier also introduced a resolution in January to extend the ratification deadline.

Among a series of witnesses who testified before the committee today, Nevada state Senator Patricia Spearman railed against some of the ERA misconceptions that have taken root over the years.

“Why in God’s name it is so hard for people to understand,” said Spearman, who is also an ordained minister, that the ERA isn’t just about women or members of the LGBT community?

“It’s about equality,” she said. “Period.”

Patricia Arquette, a former star of the long-running television drama “Medium,” pushed the amendment from a wage-disparity standpoint, pointing to the statistic that women make 80 cents for every dollar made by men. For women of color, the shortfall is worse.

“If you’re making 54 cents less as a Latina woman than your white male colleague, you’re paying a 46% gender tax,” Arquette said.

Arquette also spoke on the issue of personal time for working women, saying they usually spend their limited time off caring for their health needs of their children rather than themselves.

The disparity is “killing women,” Arquette said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touched on a similar issue last year in a report that said, due to increased rates of poverty, more black women than white die of breast cancer though they get the disease at the same rate.

Another survey by the U.S. Census Bureau says black women and Hispanic women also face the largest pay disparities as compared with white men. The same report says men with children see a boost in their weekly earnings by roughly $300 on average, but women with children receive raises less often.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony today about the perceived shortfalls of the ERA as well.

Elizabeth Foley, a professor at the Florida International University College of Law, said she supports the ERA as a woman but that it would be “bad for the country” to ratify the amendment as it stands today.

Foley said the language of the amendment would require courts to formally define the word “sex,” which could set off a torrent of litigation.

Though she also called it unclear if it is too late now to pass the original amendment, Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan pointed to Supreme Court rulings like Dillon v. Gloss and Coleman v. Miller, which approved the extension of seven-year ratification deadlines for amendments as needed.

“You can absolutely change the deadline,” Sullivan said. “Article V [of the Constitution] doesn’t give Congress any power to decide when an amendment is ratified, it simply says when three-quarters of the states say ratify, the amendment is enacted.”

On the committee itself meanwhile, some lawmakers repeated the argument that the ERA has a subtext of codifying abortion.

Representative Mike Cohen said, if passed, “the people’s right to protect the unborn would be eliminated.”

The remarks by the Louisiana Republican roiled Representative Maloney, a New York Democrat.

“This has nothing to do with abortion,” Maloney said. “Saying so is divisive and is a tool to defeat it. Please do not ever say that again.”

As further proof that the ERA “is not a stalking horse for abortion,” Maloney noted that the right to abortion is already preserved in the Constitution because it’s a matter of privacy, not equality.

Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, meanwhile voiced his concern today that the ERA will empower transgender people in the fight over sex-specific public bathrooms.

In an interview after the hearing, Equality Now human rights attorney Kate Kelly scoffed that some lawmakers are still trotting out the “old, tired anti-ERA tropes that have long been debunked.”

“This hearing made it clear, their excuses have run out,” said Kelly, whose organization fights to stop human rights abuses across the globe.

Kelly called the “bathroom scare tactics” voiced by Representative Gohmert “despicable,” and emphasized that the ERA is meant to secure equality for all.

“Trans women are women — period,” Kelly said. “We’re not leaving anyone behind.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler vowed to see Speier’s resolution passed given today’s “right-leaning” formation on the U.S. Supreme Court.