September 19, 2007

Equal Rights Amendment Re-Introduced in Congress

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After more than twenty years since its last stand in Congress, the Equal Rights Amendment – the constitutional guarantee for equal treatment of women – is back on Washington’s agenda.
This spring, Democrats in both the House and the Senate reintroduced the measure as the Women’s Equality Amendment, a new name for an old idea. Empowered by the Democratic sweep of Congress during the 2006 elections, the new majority plans to hold a vote on the issue by the end of the session.
“I think this is something that should be key to the Democratic agenda,” said Dr. Francine Moccio, director of Cornell’s Institute for Women and Work.
Proponents of the ERA praise the initiative to pass the amendment claiming it is long overdue. Since 1982, when the measure fell short of ratification by just 3 states, advocates have been fighting for another shot, but until this year, the issue has gained little attention.
“I think we have a better chance with the new, more progressive Congress,” said Marcia Pappas, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women.
However, the fate of the proposed amendment remains highly uncertain. Debate over the necessity of the ERA continues to surround the issue — a haunting reminder of the ERA’s previous defeat.
Supporters of the amendment argue that laws are not enough to protect a woman’s right to equality due to loopholes and inconsistent court interpretations. A constitutional amendment, they say, would establish a firm basis for identifying and rectifying cases of discrimination in the same way that the 14th amendment protects against discrimination based on race, according to Pappas.
“It is very difficult to prove discrimination based on a person’s sex. This will really put into effect a much clearer path on how they have to determine what is discrimination,” said Pappas.
Tim Krueger ’08, vice president of the Cornell Democrats, agreed with this sentiment. “In reality, in order for local and state laws to work, you need cohesive standards,” he said.
In contrast, many conservatives argue that the proposed constitutional amendment is not a good strategy to ensure equal rights for women. Fearing the possible side effects of the ERA and the highly permanent nature of an amendment, opponents anticipate that more problems would be created than solved.
“The ERA is extremely well-intentioned legislation, but there may be unintended consequences,” said Ahmed Salem ’08, chairman of the Cornell College Republicans.
Taking on the ERA, Salem said that conservatives are concerned with the potential for this amendment to undermine traditional values involving marriage issues, women in the draft and abortion rights as well as liberal movements like affirmative action programs. He said that approving the ERA would open the door for other issues not directly addressed by the amendment, but still linked due to the broad language used in the ERA.
“In spirit, I think everyone supports the amendment, everyone supports equality. I just don’t think they have thought this all the way through,” said Salem. “There are a lot of women’s issues that must be addressed, but this way is not clear or specific enough.”
While nobody is denying that women deserve equality, the means of achieving that end has sparked much controversy as the ERA gains momentum around the country. Feminists, fundamentalists, liberals and conservatives have joined in on the debate, but where the issue is going is hard to tell.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the issue. There has been a lot of bad publicity and a lot of misleading publicity,” said Moccio.
One thing is certain though – for ERA supporters, any attention is better than none. Because serious ERA debate has remained dormant for so long, the revived national attention looks promising as many advocates hope it will inspire a new era of women’s rights awareness and activism.
Locally, Moccio thinks that the movement will be felt by Cornell and the Ithaca community because of the area’s historic relationship to the women’s movement, which started with the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention in 1848.
However, the scene may be a bit different in the political realm according to Krueger. He said that while women’s rights are always an important agenda topic, in the opinion of most Democrats, the ESA will probably not be given high priority in Washington.