Drafted by a suffragette in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment has been stirring up controversy ever since. Many opponents considered it dead when a 10-year ratification push failed in 1982, yet its backers on Capitol Hill, in the Illinois statehouse and elsewhere are making clear this summer that the fight is far from over.
In Washington, congresswomen Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., are prime sponsors of two pieces of legislation aimed at getting the amendment ratified. They recently organized a pro-ERA rally, evoking images of the 1970s, outside the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women's rights back to the Stone Age," said Speier, explaining the renewed interest in the ERA. The amendment would stipulate that equal rights cannot be denied or curtailed on the basis of gender.
Participants in the July 24 rally directed much of their ire at the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby ruling. In a 5-4 decision, with the majority comprised of five male justices, the court allowed some private businesses to opt out of the federal health care law's requirement that contraception coverage be provided to workers at no extra charge.
"They could not have made the Hobby Lobby ruling with an ERA," Maloney said.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, battle lines are being drawn for a likely vote this fall in the state House of Representatives on whether to ratify the ERA. The state Senate approved the ratification resolution on a 39-11 vote in May, and backers hope for a similar outcome in the House after the legislature reconvenes in November.
If the amendment gets the required three-fifths support in the House, Illinois would become the 36th state to ratify the ERA. Thirty-eight states' approval is required to ratify an amendment — but the ERA's possible road to ratification today is complicated by its history.
The Illinois resolution's chief sponsor in the Democrat-controlled House, Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang — who said he was close to securing the 71 votes needed for approval — is motivated in part by Illinois' role in the ERA drama of the 1970s. Back then, the legislature's failure to ratify the amendment was a crucial blow to the national campaign.
"Illinois was the state that killed it 40 years ago," Lang said, calling that "appalling" and noting that Illinois has an equal rights amendment in its state constitution.
One of the leading opponents of the ERA during the 1970s was conservative Illinois lawyer Phyllis Schlafly, who launched a campaign called Stop ERA and is credited with helping mobilize public opinion against the amendment in some of the states that balked at ratifying it.
Schlafly, now 89, said activists and politicians trying to revive the ERA were "beating a dead horse.
"They lost and they can't stand it," she said in a telephone interview. "They're doing it to raise money, to give people something to do, to pretend that women are being mistreated by society."
Schlafly's allies in Illinois are gearing up to fight the amendment in the House. The Illinois Family Institute contends the ERA would force women into military combat, invalidate privacy protections for bathrooms and locker rooms, undermine child support judgments and jeopardize social payments to widows.
"There is virtually no limit to the number and kind of lawsuits the ERA will spawn," the institute said.
Lang scoffs at such predictions and says the federal ERA could be a valuable tool in ensuring fair treatment for women in the workplace and in financial transactions.
Written by Alice Paul — a leader of the women's suffrage movement in the U.S. a century ago — the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced annually in Congress from 1923 to 1970, when congressional hearings began in the heyday of the modern feminist movement. In 1972, the ERA won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was forwarded to the 50 state legislatures in search of the needed 38 votes to ratify.
Congress set a deadline of 1979, at which point 35 states had ratified the ERA. The deadline was extended to 1982, but no more states came on board, and the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the ERA was dead.
The states that did not ratify were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.
Aside from Illinois, there have been few signs that any of those states are on the verge of ratifying the ERA. In politically divided Virginia, the Senate voted 25-8 vote this year for ratification, but the measure died in a committee in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
In Congress, ERA supporters have introduced two measures in pursuit of ratification.
One — known as the "three-state strategy" — is a resolution that would nullify the 1982 deadline so that only three more states would need to ratify the ERA in addition to the 35 that did so in the 1970s.
The other measure would restart the traditional process, requiring passage of the ERA by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate and House, followed by ratification by legislatures in three-quarters of the 50 states.
In the Republican-controlled House, the measures are considered longshots, and neither is expected to come to a vote this year. But supporters said their cause would gain momentum if Illinois ratifies the ERA this year.
Although the ERA does have some Republican supporters, in Congress and in states such as Illinois, it has far less backing overall in GOP ranks than among Democrats. Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, suggested that ERA ratification could be among the issues raised as Democrats press their claim that the GOP is waging a "war on women."
"Interest in the ERA is going to continue to bubble up at the grassroots level," O'Neill said. Asked when final ratification might come, she replied, "In years, not decades."
In Oregon, which ratified the federal ERA in 1973, there will be a measure on the November ballot to add an ERA to the state constitution. Its prospects are considered good, yet it is opposed by some women's rights advocates who say Oregon already has strong protections against gender-based discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon is concerned that a state amendment might prompt judges to conclude that voters wanted protections against gender bias to be stronger than protections based factors such as race, religion or sexual orientation.