I often wonder how different my life would have been if the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified instead of falling three states short in 1982. I bet I wouldn’t have had to quit jobs after being told that in order to be promoted I would have to sleep with the boss. In fact, I bet I would have been the boss. I bet I wouldn’t have been told that now that I was married my pay just supplemented my husband’s. In fact, I bet I wouldn’t have been severely underpaid my entire career. I bet that when I was pregnant with twins, the provost wouldn’t have looked me up and down and asked, ‘Can you get any bigger?” In fact, I bet I would have enjoyed paid family leave (and maybe I would have been the provost instead of the underpaid teaching faculty).
But the ERA was never ratified, in large part because a woman named Phyllis Schlafly grabbed a bullhorn, recruited a bunch of like-minded women and plenty of men, and had her voice heard. Here’s the irony. Feminism put that bullhorn in Phyllis Schlafly’s hands. She benefitted from all the work first and second wave feminists had done—all of the blood (yes, literal blood), sweat, and tears they had spilled in order to earn the right to cast votes and to hold political office and to propose legislation. Because they persisted (and ‘they’ included a young attorney named Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Schlafly had the right to stand up and speak in direct opposition to everything they believed in. Feminism gave her that right. And she used it to deny every woman in the United States equality. How significant was the defeat of the ERA? That was 1982. Do the math. In the 38 years since its defeat (how ironic is that, since 38 states are needed to ratify an amendment to the Constitution?) we haven’t moved any closer to ratification, even though Virginia finally became the 38th state to ratify the amendment earlier this year. Instead, in those 38 years, millions of women have suffered discrimination without recourse. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia so eloquently put it: “Certainly the Constitution does not require sexual discrimination on the basis of sex. The Constitution doesn’t require it. It simply doesn’t forbid it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever voted for that” (Radiolab). That’s right. In fact, the word sex only appears once in the Constitution—in the 19th Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (constitutioncenter.org). The word ‘sex’ only appears in that one amendment that was finally passed after two generations of feminists fought and died for the right to vote. Yet because the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated—because “nobody ever voted for that”—we continue to pay the price today.
Enter Justice Scalia’s former clerk, Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. If confirmed (which looks like a given despite the precedent set by Republicans in 2016 not to confirm a nominee during an election year, and despite the last wish of Justice Ginsburg, whose seat Barrett will fill), Barrett will be given the platform and the power to decimate women’s rights to an even greater extent than Phyllis Schlafly did. And how did Coney Barrett reach this pinnacle in her career? How was she able to attend college, become an attorney, then a judge, and now likely a Supreme Court Justice? Yes—feminism. And even more ironically, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg shattered those glass ceilings and worked tirelessly for gender equality (by taking on cases on behalf of men and women, by the way. If you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to the case of the Beer Boys on Radiolab, I strongly encourage you to do so). Because of Ruth, and millions of other feminists, Coney Barrett will likely become a Supreme Court Justice. And when she dons that robe, she will work to ensure that millions of people are stripped of their rights. She will likely vote to deny women the right to safe and legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. She will likely vote to deny millions of Americans access to health care by doing away with the Affordable Care Act. That, in turn, will deny women access to affordable birth control and preventive care. That will lead to less early detection of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer, as well as an increase in health issues for women who take hormonal birth control for medical issues such as painful endometriosis, ovarian cysts, polycystic ovarian syndrome, menstrual-related migraines, PMS, and PMDD. It will also lead to unwanted pregnancies, which will lead to more at-risk children. Coney Barrett has stated on the record that she is against the Affordable Care Act and its birth control provision. She will also likely rule in favor of corporations, which will impact everything from workers’ rights (women are still waiting for equal pay and an end to hostile workplaces) to the environment, which is already teetering on the edge. BIPOC, women, and children are most negatively impacted by environmental justice issues—think tainted water in Flint, Michigan, for example. Women’s “environmental disadvantage and deprivation often goes unrecognized” (ncbi.nim.nih.gov).
As a female citizen of the United States, I have been denied equality my entire life, as evidenced by the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. But I always had Ruth Bader Ginsburg in my corner. Her very presence lessened that blow. I knew she had my back. She had everyone’s back—everyone who was concerned about equality before the law, the principle that each independent being must be treated equally by the law.
Without her, I feel vulnerable in a way I have never felt before, which likely explains the visceral reaction I experienced on hearing of her death. I could not catch my breath, and my legs collapsed under me. I remained on the floor for hours—stunned, grief stricken, and terrified. The last time I found myself in a similar position was election night November 2016. Yet I am not defeated. Ruth may be gone, and her legacy may be in jeopardy, but her indomitable strength lives on in millions of us. We will not go back. And that gives me hope.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.