Clad in suffragette white, actress Patricia Arquette delivered a passionate plea for the Equal Rights Amendment at a historic hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
It was the first time in 36 years the ERA, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, has been discussed in Congress. Seated behind Arquette were several rows of women’s activists, including fellow actress Alyssa Milano. Many wore white, and some had suffragette sashes of purple and green.
“There’s a groundswell in this country,” Arquette said. “Women are rising up by the millions and saying they will not be sexually assaulted, they will not be paid less, they will not be treated as subhuman and they will have their voices heard.”
The ERA passed Congress in 1972 with bipartisan support, but fell three states short of the 38 required to ratify by the 1982 deadline. At issue Tuesday was a bill, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), that would eliminate the deadline.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee equal rights for women in its constitution. Speier called the failure to enshrine women’s rights in the U.S. Constitution a “stain” on the country.
“Nations around the world recognize the equality of men and women,” Speier said Tuesday. “It’s frankly an embarrassment.”
The ERA would have enormous symbolic power. Updating the nation’s most important document to officially include women as part of “we the people” would be no minor thing.
The amendment could have huge implications for lawmakers, who have been constrained by the lack of formally codified gender equality. Most recently, a court struck down a prohibition on female genital mutilation passed by Congress, claiming it was unconstitutional. Part of the Violence Against Women Act was likewise struck down because it was deemed unconstitutional. With the ERA, women would also have less of an uphill battle demonstrating cases of unfair pay, sexual discrimination or harassment in the courts.
Since 2017, Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA, bringing the number up to 37 of the 38 states needed to amend the Constitution.
Advocates are hopeful they’ll get one more state. Last week, a panel in the Louisiana state legislature voted to move forward with ERA ratification.
The failure of the U.S. to include women in its Constitution is a situation that “cries out for correction,” said Kathleen Sullivan, a partner at the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan who also testified Tuesday.
The shadow of the Trump administration and Me Too loomed over the hearing, which ran for over two hours. Arquette spoke about the symbolic importance of simply calling for women’s rights. She said that her 2015 Oscar acceptance speech, in which she called for equal rights for women, inspired women around the country to demand equal pay, even leading to the passage of an equal pay law in California that had been hanging around for more than 30 years.
Arquette’s speech also kicked off a push for equal pay in Hollywood that helped lead to revelations about Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times, which in turn helped fuel the Me Too movement.
Add in the election of Donald Trump, and the push for equality has gotten a huge boost in recent years.
“The drumbeat for the Equal Rights Amendment has never been louder,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor on Speier’s legislation who has introduced an ERA bill 12 times in Congress.
Maloney pointed out that since 2017, millions of women have taken to the streets in protest on various occasions. “Women are not waiting anymore,” she said. “We demand what is right ― full equality now. We demand it be spelled out in the Constitution.”
In his opening remarks, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he hoped the prospect of equality for women wouldn’t be subject to debate.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) argued that equal rights for women would enshrine abortion rights into federal law. “The people’s right to protect the unborn would be eliminated if the ERA would be passed,” he said, adding that “of course, we all believe women should be protected from discrimination.”
Maloney and others pushed back on Johnson’s remarks, emphasizing that throwing abortion into the conversation about equal rights was little more than a distraction that would derail the amendment. Even if the ERA passed, they said, debates over reproductive rights would continue.
Sullivan pointed out that abortion and the ERA are two different issues, and that the passage of equal rights amendments in some states hasn’t changed abortion laws there.
“The ERA is just a totally separate issue from abortion and reproductive rights,” she said.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) tried to argue that the ERA would somehow endanger women because it would mean transgender women could use women’s restrooms. That would cause women who’d been raped to suffer “those traumas” again, he claimed.
Several of the women testifying dismissed Gohmert’s argument. Arquette pointed out that women face the danger of sexual assault almost anywhere, and that their legal rights to protection from such assault would only be strengthened by a constitutional amendment.
“Do you know how scary it is to be a woman in the United States of America? You’re scared someone wants to go to the bathroom,” she said. “Women are being raped everywhere.”
Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman (D), who led that state’s ratification efforts, noted that the fight for equality always involves a push against these kinds of specious arguments.
“People who were born in privilege always debate whether those of us who were not deserve equality,” she said. “Equality is not debatable.”
Yet even if Speier’s bill passes the House, the Republican majority in the Senate would likely be unwilling to touch the ERA.
Still, Maloney battles on. “Today’s hearing is a critical step as we fight to finally ratify the ERA,” she told HuffPost Tuesday. “Every elected official across the country needs to know that we will not quit until women are in the Constitution, where we belong.”