Minnesota legislature takes on controversial issue dating back to 1923: Equal rights for women

Gee, thanks, Phyllis.

Gee, thanks, Phyllis. Associated Press

There are a number of ways the Minnesota constitution could change this year. It could be updated to legalize marijuana. It might shrink Minnesota’s relatively large legislature – from 134 representatives and 67 senators down to 98 and 49, respectively.

And it might take on a high profile piece of legislation with nearly a century of embattled debate behind it. It’s called the Equal Rights Amendment, and it’s been sponsored by both New Brighton Democratic Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein and St. Paul Democratic Senator Richard Cohen.

The stated purpose of the ERA is simple. It guarantees that “equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.”

Upon reading that, you’ve probably got a few questions, like, Wait, do we not already have that? and Why don’t we have that? and What is this, 1923?

That was the year the amendment was first proposed in the United States Congress by suffragist Alice Paul. (Her version was called the Mott Amendment after Lucretia Mott, and read “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction.”) Similar amendments were introduced, but not passed, in every congressional session -- until the fateful year of 1972, when it finally got the two-thirds majority required to move on.

But the ERA wasn’t a done deal yet. Next came ratification, which required approval by three-quarters of the nation’s state legislatures “within seven years.” And, honestly, its proponents thought they had this thing in the bag. The ERA was bipartisan, and had been for a couple of decades. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and even Nixon were on board.

As it turns out, they did not have this thing in the bag -- in part due to the work of conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly. She formed a group with the on-the-nose title of “STOP ERA” (a bafflingly ironic acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges, Equal Rights Amendment”).

What privileges were those, exactly? Well, she argued, if women and men were legally equal, women might be forced to go to war, or lose their right to child support and alimony, and also somehow lose their place within the institutions of “family,” “marriage,” and “children.” Any women who were on the ERA’s side, she said, were “women’s libbers” and “radicals.” She called the women on her side the “silent majority.”

“Suddenly, everywhere we are afflicted with aggressive females on television talk shows yapping about how mistreated American women are, suggesting that marriage has put us in some kind of ‘slavery,’ that housework is menial and degrading, and -- perish the thought -- that women are discriminated against,” she said in a 1972 speech.

Schlafly was persuasive. She managed to convert the ERA from something lawmakers took for granted into the key shot fired in a culture war. Her tactics scared several state legislators off --enough, it turned out, to bring the ratification just three states short of its three-quarters requirement by the end of the seven-year deadline.

In 1978, legislators extended the deadline to 1982, but no new states joined the fray. The ERA had failed.

So why are we suddenly talking about the ERA in 2019? And on the state level? The amendment’s Minnesota Senate sponsor, Cohen, says he’s been putting this forward for “a number of years” for the same simple reason.

“If the federal government isn’t doing anything, we might as well do something,” he says. He wants Minnesota to have its own version of the ERA on the books to protect against “still significant gender inequity” in a “wide variety of aspects of life in Minnesota.” With new Democratic leadership in the House and some new faces in the Senate, he thinks the state has a chance to make it happen this year.

But it turns out, there’s still a chance for this contentious bill on the national level, too. Congress passed legislation to extend the deadline once back in 1978 -- theoretically, it could do it again. First, there would have to be national support to push that deadline and bring the amendment back to life. Minnesota is also proposing a bill calling for Congress to take action and allow the ERA to be added to the U.S. Constitution, deadline be damned.

Passing the ERA would also require ratification by three more states. Already, we’re nearly there: Nevada finally ratified the ERA in 2017, and Illinois did so last year. A lot of ERA advocates think Virginia might be the last piece of the puzzle. Sadly, Minnesota won’t save the day in this case – we already ratified it back in 1973.

Still, Minnesota’s amendment is important to watch. What we do here could signal what's to come on a national level. It’s a time to ask ourselves how far we’ve come since 1923, and how far we may have yet to go before we can finally put to paper what many of us would already swear we believe: that everyone, regardless of gender, is equal under the law.