April 22, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Why We Need the Equal Rights Amendment

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One hundred seventy-nine countries in the world have a gender equality provision in their constitutions. The United States is not one of them.

The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923 by Alice Paul, is alive and well and more necessary than ever. The ERA states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Following women’s suffrage, Paul saw the amendment as the next logical step in codifying gender equality. Support for the amendment grew slowly, and in 1972, the ERA passed the House and Senate with the required two-thirds majority. The amendment then went to the states with a 7-year deadline for ratification. The ERA passed 35 of the necessary 38 states before the deadline expired and three states short, gender equality was never written into the Constitution.

You might tell yourself: “a constitutional guarantee of equality is just for show. We don’t actually need it.” Let me tell you why we do.

In 2005, Jessica Gonzales went before the Supreme Court with a domestic violence case. After the police refused to enforce a restraining order Gonzales had filed against her ex-husband for herself and her three young daughters (ages seven, nine and ten), Gonzales’ ex-husband kidnapped and murdered these girls. Due to the absence of a gender-equality amendment, Gonzales could not bring a gender-based violence claim before the court and instead brought forth a claim of property violation under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court declared in Jessica Gonzales v. USA that Gonzales had no right to enforcement of her protection order under the Due Process Clause.

The United States failed to bring justice to Jessica Gonzales, and the case went to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which declared that the United States had violated the human rights of Jessica Gonzales and her children by failing in its legal obligation to protect women from domestic violence. The claim that Jessica Gonzales was not protected from domestic violence is not a claim that even exists at the Constitutional level.

In a case a little closer to home here on our college campus, United States v. Morrison, the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Violence Against Women Act that would have allowed a college freshman, Christy Brzonkala, to bring her rape case against two varsity football players to justice. During the school-conducted hearing at Virginia Tech, one of the perpetrators admitted to having sexual contact with Bryzonkala despite her repeatedly telling him “no.” The college ultimately failed to punish the perpetrators despite this admission, and a state grand jury sided with the perpetrators. Brzonkala then turned to the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which offers remedy to victims of gender-motivated violence at the federal level. However, Morrison and Crawford moved to dismiss her complaint against them claiming her suit was unconstitutional, and they were not wrong. The District Court and the Court of Appeals affirmed that Congress did not have the power to enact her claim under the Violence Against Women Act, because of lack of constitutional basis under the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. Ultimately, the Supreme Court affirmed that nothing in the Constitution gave the Supreme Court power to enforce this gender-based discrimination case, and as a result, the Court affirmed the decision made by the Court of Appeals. Christy Brzonkala, a young girl who was raped as a college freshman and whose rapists admitted to her not consenting, somehow was denied justice by the United States. This is unacceptable.

It is absolutely unacceptable that victims of gender-based discrimination are not entitled to legal recourse at the Constitutional level — recourse for issues such as domestic violence, sexual-based violence, equal pay and pregnancy discrimination.

If you hear “ERA,” and you think that it is a long, lost movement of second-wave feminists in the 1970s, you are wrong. If you think we are past the point of needing an ERA, you are wrong. The ERA is just as relevant now as it has always been. As the late Justice Scalia once said, “certainly the constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

It is our responsibility to bring change — as people, as students, as proud members of an institution with a legacy of great leaders and changemakers before us. Please join me in taking action for change on April 26 for Cornell’s Campus ERA Day, at 6 p.m. in Plant Sciences 233.

Liel Sterling is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically.