As Utah prepared to become a state, an ensemble of men spent months gathering in a small room in the Salt Lake City and County Building piecing together what was to become the state’s guiding document — a constitution.
It was men who decided whether women’s rights should be established and forever enshrined in the state constitution. No other part of the convention, held in 1895, garnered more interest than that debate.
People crowded into the building, climbing over each other as they rushed up the stairs leading to the chamber, according to the Utah Division of State History. One delegate tried to get the debate moved to the larger Salt Lake Theatre, where a thousand people were waiting, hoping to listen to the proceedings, but his motion was rejected.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that “all the seats available for ladies were occupied,” and women filled some of the men’s chairs “as the departure of weary watchers to the smoking room left vacancies that were placed at the disposal of watchers of the sex whose claims, meritare and qualifications were under consideration.”
From 1870 until 1887, Utah women had the right to vote (Congress revoked that right in an effort to curb polygamy in the territory). Although there was some opposition, many in the state wanted to restore women’s suffrage — a policy The Tribune characterized as a “Principle of Mormonism.”
Delegates who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mostly supported the equal rights clause, which reads, “Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
Anthony Ivins, a delegate from Washington County who later served as a member of the church’s First Presidency, was among the men who stood in favor of granting women those rights.
“And though the people may pooh pooh it, and attempt to brush it aside as a thing of little import, though invective may be hurled against it, and volumes of oratory uttered in opposition to it, it will go on and be continued to be discussed until the civilization of this age will place woman where she belongs, not only the social but the professional and political equal of man,” Ivins told his colleagues.
The clause was adopted with a vote of 75-14. Adopted in 1895, Utah is one of just a few states to include an equal rights provision in its original constitution, a couple of months before it was granted statehood.
Nearly a century later in 1973, Utah policymakers were again faced with the question of women’s rights — whether to approve adding protections for them into the U.S. Constitution. That time, the Legislature said, “nay.”
Utah is one of 15 states to not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment before its 1982 deadline. Some states have voted to rescind their ratification, and since the deadline, three states have voted to change course and ratify.
With the deadline more than four decades in the rearview mirror, legal questions over the proposed amendment abound, and it’s unclear what the way forward for adding it to the Constitution looks like.
But Utah supporters of the amendment say the Legislature throwing its support behind the amendment could add pressure on Congress to find a way to ratify it, and would show meaningful support — even if just symbolically — of women’s rights in a state that has consistently ranked among the lowest in gender parity.
Despite numerous efforts by lawmakers in recent years, proposals to ratify the amendment have not been publicly debated in the Legislature since the 1970s.
What would a country with the ERA look like?
The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress a century ago, and 50 years ago — in 1973 — Utah’s Legislature voted on it for the first time.
As passed by Congress, the proposed amendment is just a few sentences. But in the years that followed its passage, as it awaited states’ ratification, the amendment proved so controversial that many politicians remain skittish about voicing whether they stand on one side or the other.
Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
— Proposed Equal Rights Amendment
A question rests at the heart of the debate over the amendment: How would it change women’s lives?
The most significant change that might come from adding a sex-based equality guarantee to the federal constitution, according to former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham — the first woman to serve on the state’s high court, who began advocating for the ERA as a law student in the early 70s — is that it would force courts to use a higher level of scrutiny when looking at sex discrimination claims.
Katharine Biele, president of the nonpartisan Utah League of Women Voters, said the ERA could open the door to solving “issues of structural oppression,” like pregnancy discrimination, unequal pay, workplace harassment, domestic violence and limited access to health care.
“There’s also the huge symbolic impact of having women in the federal Constitution,” Durham said. “It’s a strange oversight. I mean, we’re there, but we’re only there on the same basis that everyone else is there.”
It could also give women in states without a constitutional equal rights provision an avenue to challenge abortion restrictions (the Utah Supreme Court will hear arguments this month in a case questioning whether the state’s trigger ban violates its constitution).
That’s one of the reasons Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka opposes the ERA.
She first became involved with Phyllis Schlafy’s conservative Eagle Forum — then called “Stop ERA” — after hearing about the proposed amendment while sitting in a Latter-day Saint Relief Society meeting in Idaho five decades ago.
“I wanted equal rights, but I didn’t want this amendment that didn’t even mention women in it,” Ruzicka said.
If the ERA were to be ratified, Ruzicka argues it would result in everybody being “treated the same, and there are a lot of special things that women enjoy in the law,” like the pregnancy accommodations Biele said would be widened by the amendment. And she worries it might impact the social security benefits women who are stay-at-home moms receive.
Ruzicka said it would also eliminate local control of gender issues and hand them to Congress.
“That legislation belongs in the state, it belongs locally,” Ruzicka says. “It belongs in the cities and towns, in the states, the school boards.”
State Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, is the last lawmaker to put forward legislation to ratify the ERA. She said there needs to be an addition to the federal Constitution to avoid creating a patchwork of rights across state lines.
“If you’re going to have equal rights that are different in Idaho compared to Utah, compared to Nevada, to California to New York, don’t people deserve a continuity of respect and rights?” Riebe said. “Just because you go from one state to the next state, doesn’t mean you should gain or lose rights as a female or a male.”
The same concerns that Ruzicka held in the 70s — like the greater prevalence of gender-neutral bathrooms and women playing a larger role in the military — are still relevant, she adds.
“How’s that going for them?” Biele said, listing those arguments and others used in early debates over the amendment, like same-sex marriage becoming legal. ”All of that has taken place without the ERA.”
In 1973, when the question of whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment came to Utah, there were just six women in the entire Legislature — all held positions in the House, and all but one were Democrats.
Those women — except for the lone Republican — sponsored the resolution that, in name, promised to offer them equal rights. The state’s then-Democratic Gov. Calvin Rampton backed the measure, too, telling lawmakers in his State of the State address that it would be “inconsistent” with Utah’s constitution to not approve the ERA.
A poll that year found that 60% of Utahns supported the amendment, but while at a meeting at the Chuck-a-Rama on 400 South in Salt Lake City, Utah Senate President Warren Pugh said opposition to the ERA in his constituency was at about 90%.
The main arguments legislators made against it, as they quoted scripture, The Tribune reported, were that legislators were getting calls from Utahns who didn’t like the ERA, and that the state already had the equal rights provision in its constitution.
With a vote of 20-51, the resolution failed. It would come back again, though, two years later.
Before moving to Utah in 1973, Durham attended law school at Duke University, where, Durham said, she and the dozen other female students recruited Columbia University law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who went on to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court — to speak about sex discrimination.
Once in the Beehive State, she said she immediately began campaigning for the ERA’s ratification. Durham at the time was a professor at Brigham Young University, where she co-taught a class on sex discrimination. (The dean at school was U.S. Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s father, Rex Lee, who went on to write a book criticizing the ERA.)
In the weeks leading up to the Legislature’s second time debating the amendment’s ratification in 1975, the highest-ranking woman in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then the institution as a whole, came out in opposition to the ERA.
Supporters of the amendment, including some Latter-day Saints, fought back.
“I believe the constitution is a divine document and I also believe that it is subject to additional inspiration,” Janice Tyler, another BYU professor, told a group of male lawmakers’ wives at a State Historical Society event in January 1975. “I believe the ERA is that inspiration.”
On Feb. 10, when a woman reading clerk announced the resolution for the first time, and “in a voice filled with emotion,” The Tribune reported, a gallery full of women stood and cheered.
The next week, many of those pro-ERA women rallied in freezing temperatures all through the night leading up to the vote, lighting candles on the Capitol steps to spell “ERA.” They jumped up and down in nervous anticipation of the coming afternoon, trying to keep themselves warm.
“In Utah, we had a pretty positive indication that we might have the votes for ratification,” Durham said. “After that editorial in the LDS Church News, that fell apart and it was overwhelmingly defeated.”
Despite the Democratic Party — whose platform called for ERA ratification — holding both the Utah House and Senate by narrow margins, ratification was again voted down by the mostly male body. This time, it lost by a 21-54 vote.
In 1979, the Legislature passed a joint resolution sponsored by a dozen men rejecting any extension of the deadline for ratification and urging future legislatures to never again consider the ERA.
“I think rage would be an appropriate description of what many of us experienced in having our efforts ignored, ridiculed and rejected,” Durham said.
‘It is past time’
To add a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution, three-fourths — 38 — of states’ legislatures need to vote to approve it. By the 1982 deadline, just 35 states had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
Five of those states voted to withdraw their approval, and three additional states have recently voted to ratify the amendment — both moves with questionable legal standing.
Bills that would remove the deadline to reopen the possibility of ratification have come in front of Congress multiple times. Rep. John Curtis is the only member of Utah’s delegation to back the change, voting in favor of it each time it’s come up since 2020.
“It is past time that women are guaranteed equal opportunities under the Constitution and I believe it is imperative that Congress work to fix existing gaps in the law putting women at a disadvantage,” Curtis said in a 2020 statement, continuing, “I refuse to believe that treating women as our equals comes as a tradeoff for traditional Utah values. In fact, I believe it’s actually a deep part of who we are in Utah.”
Ruzicka called it “craziness” to think there’s a way to revive the failed amendment.
“Even Ginsburg when she was alive said, ‘No, don’t do this. If you want an Equal Rights Amendment, go back and start over,’” Ruzicka said, referring to the late justice’s 2020 remarks at a Georgetown University event.
Three Democratic Utah lawmakers — former Sen. Jim Dabakis, then-Rep. Karen Kwan and Riebe — have proposed ratifying the ERA several times since 2017 (Republican Sen. Kirk Cullimore of Draper cosponsored Riebe’s 2021 resolution). Thousands of women rallied in support of their efforts, and each time the bills have been held in rules committees, keeping them from public debate.
“As a senator, you have to have a voice vote because you have to go on the record with your voice, and that is something that we hold really near and dear in the Senate, and yet they decided that they don’t want to put stuff in committees,” Riebe said. “That’s not transparent and that’s not the Utah way.”
Last legislative session, Riebe ran a resolution that would have required the Senate Rules Committee to refer all bills to a standing committee for public debate. That bill also didn’t make it out of the rules committee.
When asked about why ERA ratification bills stall, a Utah Senate spokesperson said, “Every senator has their own view on issues, and I am unaware of how each one regards this. Generally, what we heard is that the deadline to ratify the ERA has expired.”
They continued, “We also heard the written language of the ERA is unclear and does not lay out specific ways the Constitution can protect the rights of people based on gender. There are also concerns surrounding the power the federal government is given under this amendment. The federal government has established specific laws to protect people against gender discrimination, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
A spokesperson for the Utah House offered a statement from Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, saying, “Just as Utah was the first place in the United States where a vote was cast under a women’s suffrage law that passed the Utah Territorial Legislature unanimously, Utah led the way in recognizing the equality of men and women in Utah’s Constitution, written in 1895.”
That provision in the Utah Constitution, Biele with the Utah League of Women Voters said, is “not enough.”
“It’s what many of the old white men like to point to, ‘Oh, we’ve got something that protects women.’ Well, we don’t really need to be protected. We need to be equal.”
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