Should Utah ratify the ERA? State senator, conservative leader debate as bill stalls

Would the federal amendment boost the status of Utah women? Or overturn laws that protect and benefit them?

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, left, and Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the Utah Eagle Forum, participated in a virtual debate Feb. 17, 2021, about whether Utah should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Equal Rights Amendment would change women’s lives, agree Kathleen Riebe, a Utah state senator, and Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. They just disagree about what those changes would be.

Riebe and Ruzicka participated in a virtual debate this week about whether Utah should ratify the ERA. First proposed in the 1920s, it 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.”

Last year, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to add it to the U.S. Constitution, decades after it passed the U.S. Senate and House in 1972. But advocates expect legal challenges ahead, including over the fact that five states have voted to rescind their ratification and the efforts to remove a deadline for the amendment.

Ruzicka advocated against the ERA with her mentor Phyllis Schlafly during the national push to ratify it in the 1970s and ’80s. Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is the latest lawmaker to file a resolution for Utah to ratify the federal amendment. As in previous years, though, SJR8 is stuck in committee and has not moved this session.

Here is a condensed version of their Wednesday debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Utah, Women’s March Salt Lake City and Utah ERA Coalition. It was moderated by Michelle Quist, an attorney and Salt Lake Tribune columnist.

Why Riebe supports the ERA

When Riebe was in high school in New York, her mother stayed home to take care of their family, she said. But after her father died, her mother got a job as a secretary at a university, where she did not make the same wage as a groundskeeper.

There was a strike, Riebe said, over why the groundskeepers were paid more than the secretaries. “It was because one was predominantly female and one was predominantly male,” she said.

Riebe grew up to work as a dump truck driver, a police dispatcher and a wildland firefighter.

“We have definitely changed. We are definitely evolving,” she said. “And I think that the time is ripe for when we should be honoring the changes that we’ve made the equality that we’ve achieved. And so ERA is just that bill to make that solidified.”

Why Ruzicka opposes the ERA

The ERA is vague and poorly written, Ruzicka said, and she is worried that it would increase access to abortion, require women to be drafted in the military, overturn laws that benefit women and mothers and affect “privacy and safety” by having unisex restrooms and locker rooms.

Women already have claim to equal rights through the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as numerous other laws in virtually all areas in American life,” Ruzicka said, including the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Ruzicka said she also is worried about increased federal control over states, since the the ERA states, “Congress shall have the power to enforce by appropriate legislation the provisions of this article.”

Plus, Utah already has its own equal rights amendment in the state constitution, she said. Article IV, Section 1 states, “The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”

Why is the ERA still an issue today?

I think this issue still alive today because it was never ended. I don’t think it will end,” Riebe said. “... Every time we run this bill, if it doesn’t pass, and it’s not listened to, somebody else will pick up this baton.

She added, “We need to have this solidified for the girls in our future and the women all around the world, that we are not going to accept a lower standard of care, a lower standard of jobs, a lower standard of anything. ... We want everyone in our family to have equal opportunities.”

Debate over issues that are important to people, including the ERA, “will continue to go on,” Ruzicka said, similar to “right to life” efforts. But the federal ERA “isn’t the answer,” she said. Instead, “it belongs on the state level.”

Riebe agreed that it’s good Utah has its state provision, but added, “we still have one of the largest pay gaps in the country, and we have actually been stated as being the worst place to live for women.”

“So, if this was created and this was honored, then we would have a higher standard and we’d have a higher pay wage. And we don’t,” Riebe said.

Ruzicka said she disagreed with the idea “that Utah is behind in the way they treat women.”

“I think women are treated very well in this state,” she said.

Utah and the ERA

The Governor’s Office for Economic Development “has said that the number one factor for businesses choosing Utah to come in and settle is diversity,” according to Quist. She asked Riebe and Ruzicka how the ERA could affect businesses and opportunities for women in the future.

If the ERA is passed, Ruzicka said, she “can’t see that it could help at all.”

We don’t have the ERA, and Utah is growing so fast, we can’t keep up with it,” she said.

Ruzicka said she doesn’t “see why we need to pass the ERA in order to have businesses come here or to say we have diversity.”

Riebe responded, “Our jobs are not the highest paying jobs. We are not attracting the best businesses. We are not attracting diverse businesses.”

Passing the ERA would help because “it’s going to provide another layer of security, saying that we honor diversity, and we honor women. And we honor the fact that we want people to have a living wage here, regardless of your color or your gender,” according to Riebe.

Ruzicka and Riebe also discussed Utah’s large gender wage gap and the factors that contribute to it.

“You’re telling me that even though we have the equal rights amendment in the state of Utah, that there’s a big wage gap. Well, if that’s the case, I don’t think the (federal) Equal Rights Amendment can fix it,” Ruzicka said.

Riebe argued that the gender wage gap is not so much about sexual discrimination as it is about institutional discrimination.

When you look at people who are marginalized, this is where you start to see that gap. And these are the people we’re trying to solidify with equal rights,” she said.

The ERA and cultural issues

In the 1970s and ‘80s, “one of the main arguments against the ERA was that it would ... promote gay marriage,” Quist said. Since then, gay marriage has become law, while the ERA has still not been passed.

Quist asked Riebe and Ruzicka, “Aren’t these cultural issues ... going to be part of civil conversation regardless of the existence of the ERA?”

Riebe said she agreed with that idea. The ERA is not going to solve every problem or get “into the minutia” of what’s causing them, she said.

The ERA is saying this is a grand idea,” Riebe said. “This is a thought. This is a feather in the cap of saying ... all family members matter.”

There are issues tied to the debate over the ERA “that happened anyway,” Ruzicka said, and “one of them is abortion.”

The difference is that Roe v. Wade could be overturned by the courts, according to Ruzicka, while the Equal Rights Amendment is added to the Constitution by lawmakers.

Riebe responded that the courts are “like a pendulum. They swing back and forth, and they try not to swing violently.” For her, abortion and the ERA “are not connected in my mind.”

I know that people think they are, but I don’t believe they are. I think that when we put those two together, we’re making an erroneous assumption,” Riebe said.

Utah also has multiple “guardrails” in place around abortion, Riebe said, and each year, “we have new bills that are introduced to restrict these medical choices.”

I don’t think that us passing the ERA in Utah is going to change anything” with abortion, 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.