David R. Irvine: An almost-death bed ERA apology

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Local supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, to encourage Utah to ratify the ERA.

I’m a geezer on a borrowed heart, but in 1973 I was the youngest member of the Utah House of Representatives, and I like to think I was a good legislator – always a highly subjective evaluation.

That experience was remarkable and life-altering, and I still see the people with whom I served exactly as they were then; their voices still echo in my head. Many, Republicans and Democrats, became beloved, life-long friends. It was a different political age. The Democrat-Republican split was far more competitively divided, and cross-party compromise was a necessary fact of everyday life.

When I startle awake in the gremlin hours and ponder dumb things I’ve done, I am still haunted by one vote and, for more than 45 years, it has been the single thing I did politically that I most regret: I voted against my own conscience.

It was HJR 4, an amendment to the United States Constitution, providing that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” It failed on a 51-20-4 vote in the House. The 20 yea votes included 16 Democrats and four Republicans.

I rationalized my vote by telling myself that an additional yea vote wouldn’t have made any difference — every politician’s calculus and not unjustified because, as my favorite Professor J.D. Williams always said, “Politics is the art of the possible, and to be a statesman, you’ve gotta get reelected.”

But there was one factor I didn’t even think about then: How would I view that vote decades later, and how would I explain it to daughters I didn’t know I would ever have, or what I would feel as I have watched them find their way and place in the world? I have been too embarrassed to have that discussion.

One daughter has hidden pregnancies for as long as possible for fear there would be job repercussions; she says nothing to her university colleagues about her family life because it might be a career liability. The other deals every day with an office environment that confuses her career independence with an assumption that she is a dependent spouse. Both are caught in the horrendous conundrum of affording good child care.

Would passage of the ERA change any of that for the better? I don’t know. What I do know is that, 45 years later, the status quo of Utah women in terms of job opportunities, equal pay for equal work, flextime or representation in corporate and government leadership has not changed much, for all the lip service accorded the importance of equality, opportunity and fairness.

The arguments against the ERA in 1973 were that it would take away women’s “privileged status” under law — they could lose a dependent wife’s Social Security benefit, there would be a loss of separate restrooms, women could be drafted for combat and the very fabric of society could be upended. What a difference 45 years have made with respect to that parade of horribles.

As Yoda said, “The future, very hard to see it is.”

Over the elapsed years, I also came to know, on a far more personal basis, very accomplished women such as Grethe Peterson, Emma Lou Thayne, Aileen Clyde, Norma Matheson, Nelda Bishop, Dixie Huefner, Susan Lind and Irene Fisher, among others who worked hard for passage, and who over time, (kindly and gently, but incredulously) have asked me, “Why in the world would you oppose that measure?”

It has been painful to acknowledge that, however I might have rationalized it, I sorta, kinda chickened out. I have apologized over and over for allowing others to bear the burden of my own convictions. If I ever meet Sen. Martha Hughes Cannon, I will have to apologize to her also.

I have always admired the Republicans who voted yea on HJR 4. They were better men than I was, and it has not escaped me that all of them were reelected.

The ERA will be a Utah legislative topic in 2020. The arguments for and against will be the same, but maybe the ensuing 45 years of history will have put things in a different perspective, for as Martin Luther King concluded, “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

Having penned this mea culpa, when I next startle awake at 0300 and proceed to beat myself up, I will still wince over that vote, but hopefully it will be farther down the long list.

David Irvine

David Irvine, a Salt Lake City attorney, served four terms as a Republican Utah legislator in the Jurassic Age.