Donna Kelly: It is never too late for equality

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christian Nunes, vice president of the National Organization for Women, center top, joins the Utah ERA Coalition on the steps of the State Capitol building to urge legislators to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and prove their commitment to elevating the women on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, during the first day of the 2020 legislative session.

American women are not equal to men under the law. I learned that in law school in the 1970s and, sadly, it is still true today. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would put to rest these inequities. Utah can make history by ratifying the ERA and declaring that women are equal under the law.

Many of the FAQ’s about the ERA are easily answered.

Question: What did suffragette Alice Paul use as a model when she drafted the ERA in 1923?

Answer: The Utah Constitution, adopted in 1895. Utah’s Constitution provides that “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.” Utah’s provision is actually broader than the proposed ERA. If it’s good for Utah, it’s good for our country.

Question: Are the arguments used to oppose the ERA in the 1970’s still valid?

Answer: No. Most of the progressive changes that opponents of equality use to argue against the ERA have come to pass without ERA ratification. For example, marriage equality is now the law of the land throughout America. If the tired old arguments against the ERA were valid, the “parade of horribles” would have happened in Utah by virtue of the Utah constitution’s equal rights provision. They haven’t. They never will.

Question: Would the ERA usher in “abortion on demand?”

Answer: No. A woman’s right to autonomy over her own body has been in place for nearly 50 years without the ERA. The Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade based upon individual freedoms and privacy rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” clause.

Question: Aren’t there already enough protections in laws for women?

Answer: Not by a long shot. Legislation is piecemeal and can be revoked easily by states or Congress. As conservative jurist Justice Antonin Scalia stated in 2011: “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.” There it is in a nutshell: The United States Constitution does not prohibit discrimination against women.

Question: Will the ERA help only women?

Answer: This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the ERA. The ERA will help every American, regardless of gender. One example is found in wage inequality. Numerous objective studies have recently found that Utah has America’s biggest gender wage gap — women on the whole earn 70 cents on the dollar compared to men. My daughter is a single mom who has three jobs to make ends meet. This inequity takes mothers away from their daughters as well as their sons — and it hurts families.

Question: What is the symbolic impact of the ERA?

Answer: Women and girls in America will at long last be recognized as full and equal citizens. The value of this impact is enormous.

As a prosecutor of sexual assault and domestic violence cases for the last 30 years, I have witnessed first-hand the carnage of the victimization of women. When women are treated as less important the results are devastating and very real. In Utah, the rates of sexual and physical abuse of women are higher than the national average: one out of three of Utah women are victims.

Let’s turn this around. Let’s shout from the rooftops that we value women equally with men. Let’s make the provision already in Utah’s state constitution a federal standard.

Our first governor, Brigham Young, said: This is the place. I say: This is the place where women are equally valued and uplifted, not violated and abused. When we lift women, we lift our society. It’s well past time to ratify the ERA.

Donna Kelly

Donna Kelly has been a practicing attorney for 38 years and lives in Draper.