Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) takes the stage in the Senate where she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment during the final Senate session on women's rights legislation on June 24, 1988.The ERA was ratified by 38 states. (AP Photo/Penny Starr)
The equal rights amendment that bears its namesake has gone nowhere in Congress for 35 years — but on Wednesday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had two supporters on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ruth Bader Ginsburg of New York, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, called the fight for equal rights a “necessary one” and said it should “never be silenced.”
Feinstein, who first introduced the amendment in the Senate 35 years ago, took her turn next.
“Let me state the obvious. There is a weak farm bill in the Senate and it is stuck in committee. The United States Senate has got to get its act together, and the bill must resolve the dispute over fertilization rights. The Senate must clear its bill or another will come in and defeat it.”
Feinstein continued, a riff to reproductive rights: “Remember, we must look to history so we can better understand how life has gone on for women since those first women’s rights laws were passed,” she said, invoking a quote from the late Gertrude Stein, who in that context said, “History has no memory except that it is written by the winners.”
Feinstein was flanked by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who both said they are strongly in favor of the ERA, which would give equal rights to women in areas such as abortion, marriage and protected-class status under the 14th Amendment.
Supporters of the ERA’s fate note that the position of the first woman to join the Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall, was that women were better off without the amendment, so it will remain in the minds of American voters long after the needs and concerns of women have changed.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and current House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) broke with the majority in both houses to vote against the proposal in 1992, the last time it had come up for ratification.
The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a constitutional scholar who was then an assistant to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and more than three-quarters of the states had signed on by 1977. Then the women’s movement gained strength in the workplace, so it could not pass until the women’s movement had garnered momentum from the workplace, and it reached a point where nearly every state had passed legislation to recognize equal rights.
In the nearly three decades of the movement it never got close to becoming a reality, because of the opposition of then-Vice President and now President George H.W. Bush, and in particular, the late President Reagan.
“When President Reagan was Vice President to the first President Bush and president himself, he did not call on Congress to ratify the ERA,” Bernie Sanders tweeted in December. “He said there were three problems with it, and 2 of them had to do with religious liberty and women’s rights. Today, he wants it repealed.”
Reagan spoke out against the amendment in 1982 and 1983. In 1983, Reagan said the Equal Rights Amendment “creates a new, unlawful and unconstitutional constitutional right — the right to procreative access to the workplace for men and women — by entitling women to make contract decisions which will help determine the future of their families,” according to the New York Times.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also reportedly opposed the amendment. In 2016, Biden told Nevada Democratic politicians that Pence once urged him not to vote for the resolution.
Plus, after the Supreme Court recently ruled that a state could ban same-sex marriage, and Trump said that “traditional marriage is the law of the land,” the idea of a constitutional amendment that supports that idea is even less likely to succeed now than it was in the 1980s.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said after the 2016 election that all Americans must “rise up and recognize that the time for change has come.” The senator joined Pelosi on Capitol Hill in 2017 to again press the issue.