Efforts to get Utah to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment were stymied again in this session of the Legislature, but advocates say they have a plan to try again next year.
“The time for Utah to stand up for women is right now. Encourage your representatives to do just that. And if they will not, it is time to vote in someone who will,” Kelly Whited Jones, co-chair of the Utah ERA Coalition, said at a Thursday news conference at the Capitol, as a group of mainly women holding “hear our bill” signs cheered behind her.
A joint resolution from Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, calling on Utah to vote for ratification has been “held captive by the House Rules Committee” since the start of the session, and “is meeting an intentional death by inaction,” said Emily Bell McCormick, Jones’ co-chair of the bipartisan coalition.
But over the next year, McCormick said, they “will work to get candidates who are pro-ERA in the Legislature” and support policy “that elevates the status of women in Utah, knowing that even small, but purposeful, policies can become the foundation of great equality.” On the national level, she said, they will work with other advocates to remove the 1982 ratification deadline previously set by Congress.
The ERA, which was first proposed in the 1920s, states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It passed the U.S. Senate and House in 1972, and in January, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to add it to the U.S. Constitution. But advocates expect legal challenges ahead, including over five states have voted to rescind their ratification.
Two polls from earlier this year show that roughly 70% of Utahns support ratifying the ERA. With a week left in the Legislature this session, Jones said she is calling on leaders to “stop sitting on our equal rights.”
“To those who have remained silent, or who have actively worked to halt this bill, I have some words for you. If you want to be able to say Utah is good for women, you have to be good for women," Jones said.
To those who celebrated the 150th anniversary this year of a Utah woman voting for the first time, and did not support the ERA, she said, “you cannot claim that you are good for women or say you support equal rights because you had a chance to do so, and you chose not to.”
McCormick and Jones touted some successes in this session, though, including growing the conversation about the ERA in the state and working with Republican and Democratic legislators and organizations such as Mormons for ERA and Silicon Slopes, which both support the resolution.
For the past month and a half, Jones and others “have stood vigil" outside the House chamber in support of the ERA, drawing on the imagery of the Silent Sentinels, suffragists who picketed President Woodrow Wilson outside the White House more than a century ago to fight for women’s right to vote.
“They wore distinctive purple, white and gold sashes and held signs with slogans like, ‘Mr. President, how long must we wait for liberty?’" Jones said. “Our ERA sentinel sign reads, ‘Mr. Speaker (ironically, also a Mr. Wilson), how long must women wait for equal constitutional rights?’”
Last month, Utah’s congressmen Ben McAdams and John Curtis approved a measure in the U.S. House of Representatives removing the ERA deadline. Curtis was one of only five Republicans to support the move. In a video posted to Twitter last month, Curtis said he had “stress” and “a lot of anxiety” leading up to it, but said “for me, it was the right vote.”
Last week, during his monthly news conference, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he hadn’t “spent a lot of time on” the ERA but that he wasn’t sure if it was still needed. “I think most of us agree that we ought to have equal opportunity for everybody regardless of their gender,” Herbert said, but he added that he thought "most of the issues and concerns of the original Equal Rights Amendment have been addressed in some other form or fashion.”
During the push to ratify the ERA in the 1970s and ’80s, leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published articles, distributed pamphlets and lobbied against the amendment, encouraging members to do the same. They feared it could damage families and pave the way for gay marriage, women in the military, unisex restrooms and increased abortions.
In December, a church spokesman said its position has not changed. The Utah Eagle Forum has also voiced opposition to the ERA, citing similar concerns as the church.
While some consider the ERA to be “controversial,” Jones argued “there is nothing controversial about ordinary equality.” Utah’s resolution to ratify “deserves a fair hearing on its merits,” she said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.