Today is Women’s Equality Day. It’s a little-known federal holiday commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the vote in 1920. Long before that, in 1870, the first woman to vote in any American election was a Utahn: Seraph Young, grandniece of Mormon prophet Brigham Young.
Utah also had the first female senator (Martha Huges Cannon) and the first all-female city council (Kanab). After so many firsts, it’s tragic that in many concrete, measurable ways Utah now comes in last in the nation for women. Just last week, Utah was again ranked worst for women’s equality.
There is, however, a way that Utah can reclaim a pioneering spot in American women’s history and help rectify the woes of gender inequality — all at once! Twenty-six U.S. states, including Utah in Article IV, §1, and the majority of countries around the world, formally protect women in their respective constitutions. The U.S. Constitution does not.
Why don’t we have an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in our own federal constitution?
The answer is: We almost did.
The ERA originally passed in Congress in 1972, but 38 states are required to ratify an amendment before it actually becomes part of the constitution. Due to a nationwide misinformation campaign by groups like the Eagle Forum and the Mormon Church, the ERA fell just three states short. However, many things have changed since then, and even the church leadership now says it no longer opposes the ERA.
In January of 2017, I led the largest march on the state Capitol in Utah history. Our principal demand was for the Utah Legislature to pass our resolution ratifying the ERA. Women filled the statehouse to the brim chanting: “Ho, ho. Hey, hey. Ratify the ERA!” Sadly, even with enthusiastic support by thousands of Utahns across the state, historic bias kept our ratification resolution from even making it out of committee and Nevada beat us to the punch.
Thanks to a resurgence of the women’s movement and the enthusiasm following the national Women’s March, in 2017 Nevada became the first state in the modern era to ratify the ERA, and in May 2018 Illinois followed suit. As an attorney at women’s rights organization Equality Now, I work with groups across the country organizing in the 13 unratified states. There are active ERA campaigns in Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma. We’re just one state to 38!
The lasting need for the ERA is more clear now than ever. Women have no anchor in the U.S. Constitution. Currently, when the U.S. Supreme Court reviews a case under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, laws that discriminate on the basis of gender do not get the highest level of protection that other classes do, like race or religion. In effect, this means it’s easier to pass and keep sex discriminatory laws on the books. Laws we rely on to protect us, like Title IX and Title VII, are on the chopping block. Ratifying the ERA would finally place women’s rights permanently in the U.S. Constitution at the highest level, and will help protect all marginalized genders and families.
The ERA is just another way of stating the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We can amend the U.S. Constitution to match Utah’s own and affirm gender equality as an American value once and for all. Let’s beat out the other states, make Utah the 38th and final ratification needed, and again take our place on the right side of history.
Ho, ho. Hey, hey. Let’s ratify the ERA.
Kate Kelly is co-founder of Utah Women Unite and a human rights attorney at Equality Now, an international women’s rights NGO and a lead organization of the national ERA Coalition.