Why is the ERA still such a radical notion?

December 15, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Anyone who's spent a lot of time white-water rafting down the river of social change gets to see a lot of ironies washed up on the banks. But these are beauties.

About 21 years ago, the Equal Rights Amendment crashed against a handful of legislators in North Carolina, Illinois and Florida. The opponents had listed three horrible fates that would follow if we added women's equality to the Constitution.

If there were an ERA, we would have (1) unisex toilets, (2) women in combat and (3) gay marriage.

The fearful specter of unisex toilets was always my favorite. A natural-born radical, my house already had co-ed bathrooms. But in the intervening years, the integrated john became a hip accessory in Ally McBeal's office and fairly common in colleges.

As for women in combat, there are now 33 women generals, 212,000 women in the military, and everyone routinely talks about the men and women in Iraq. There never was a law against women in combat zones, and as Jessica Lynch could tell you, it has gotten harder to tell the front lines from the sidelines.

And now, the third in this trilogy: gay marriage. In the 1970s, I don't think even Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum really believed in something as far-fetched as gay marriage. Now gay marriage may be fetched in Massachusetts and gay almost-marriage already exists in Vermont.

So there you are. In 2003, we have unisex toilets, women in combat and gay marriage. The only thing we don't have is the Equal Rights Amendment.

In fact, here's another irony to toss on the riverbank of social change. In Why We Lost the ERA, political scientist Jane Mansbridge wrote, "The campaign against the ERA succeeded because it shifted debate away from equal rights and focused it on the possibility that the ERA might bring substantive changes in women's roles and behavior." Well, we got a lot of substantive changes - a majority of mothers in the workplace - but no constitutional status.

The flow of change always takes some odd turns. But a quick look at the modern scenery would make any woman dizzy.

We have the dubious equality of powerful female role models in movies such as Kill Bill, but we have only 14 women in the Senate. Wal-Mart is selling a brand new NRA magazine for gun-toting women, but it still refuses to sell the morning-after pill. We narrowed the wage gap, but much of that is due to men's shrinking paychecks. We talk as if men and women are equal, but we've stopped talking about what true equality would look like at home or in public.

How come we got the side effects without the full effects? And how come the ERA is still hibernating?

For one thing, many of the more radical feminists, including some law professors, started to emphasize gender differences over equality. At the same time, the National Organization for Women, which once led the ERA struggle, switched to something called the Constitutional Equality Amendment, which not only would ban the "subordination of women to men" but calls for the end of discrimination on everything from marital status to "indigence." Indigence? Earth to NOW, are you serious?

The only folks carrying the traditional ERA banner in this millennium are the stalwarts who have loyally reintroduced it in Illinois, Florida and Missouri. As for the opponents, today they've gone from saying it's too radical to saying it's superfluous. In Illinois last spring, Mrs. Schlafly - blast from the past - testified that an ERA would force the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to merge. Does that portend a unisex Scout meeting before any amendment?

And while we are counting ironies, right-wing culture warriors who opposed changing the Constitution to include women now want to change it to exclude gay marriages.

The absence of equal rights puts us in some awkward positions. Our country is one of a handful that hasn't signed the U.N. treaty on women's rights. And it's touchy, to put it mildly, to push for greater equality in Iraq or Afghanistan if we're not there yet in America.

While an ERA wouldn't change the average woman's life overnight, words matter. As Ms. Mansbridge says, "A simple declaration of equality is the right thing. It deserves to be in the Constitution." At the very least, a discussion would jumpstart the dormant debate about a stalled movement.

In the meantime, we're left steering through this social change with a question: Is it possible that equality between the sexes is actually a more radical idea than marriage within a sex?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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