I recently returned from California, to a beautifully chaotic home of children, and emptied a mailbox that had been neglected for the three days I was away. Coming home was made more difficult by the virus at hand and the end of a legislative session that had proven to be tough on equality.
As I dug through the junk mail, bills and a small package full of promotional material, a large manilla envelope emerged. Courier font graced the address bars and dozens of vintage stamps of all denominations — with mottos like “Grandma Moses,” “The Bill of Rights 175th Anniversary,” “Edith Wharton,” “1970 Women Suffrage 50th Anniversary,” “International Cooperation Year 1965,” “Henceforward Shall Be Free — Emancipation Proclamation” and a six cent “Register to Vote” stamp. The envelope itself was an other-worldly thing, an anachronism.
I became distracted for a moment with the buzz of antsy children, fielding questions about a virus that I did not fully understand, but about which I became the authority in my home. Shortly, the pull of the outdoors was too much for the children and they trickled outside, leaving me with the thought of no school and how to keep busy hands from touching faces.
I glanced at the counter — the envelope. Accustomed to tearing into Amazon packages of hair elastics or dishtowels, I forced my hand to open the kitchen drawer, carefully choosing a knife so as not to damage the contents of the curious flat envelope. I slid the knife along the top edge, reached in and pulled out a vanity license plate. Registered in 1979, with the letters “E-R-A.” And the New Hampshire state motto, “Live Free or Die,” across the top.
The world stilled. Much time in my recent life has been spent working on policies to increase equality. Some, like the tampon tax, are essential building blocks to equality. But the ERA is foundational — an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees women and men equal rights.
Shortly after securing women’s right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment, suffragists intended for the ERA to be the next and final step in constitutional equality. In 1923, Alice Paul penned the 24-word amendment, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
But, ratifying the ERA stalled on several fronts, specifically in the 1970s when an anti-ERA campaign flooded public perception and only 35 of the needed 38 states ratified — Utah among those that voted against ratification.
This “year of the woman,” 2020, marks 100 years since women secured the constitutional right to vote. And Utah takes its place as a leader in women’s rights, celebrating 150 years of declaring women eligible to vote, a full half-century before our nation followed. And this year, 2020, offered Utah another chance to secure gender equality by ratifying the ERA in the form of House Joint Resolution 007 — to protect the legal rights of all American women and men in perpetuity.
Yet despite multiple polls showing 70-plus percent public support, a large coalition of organizations, universities, private entities, cities, counties, lawmakers and individuals, HJR7 met an intentional death-by-inaction — held captive by the House Rules Committee.
The press conference in which our ERA Coalition announced the legislative failure, shared words of hope, confidence and a strong plan to move forward. Still, the burden of it all sunk into me that day — the task of equality, overwhelming. And a gnawing vision of minuscule people pushing against a massive granite boulder replayed in my mind. According to physics, no actual “work” had been done. There was a fury of force but what felt like no distance. The weight and history and mass of the boulder — too large. It could not be moved.
It was because of that feeling that a well-timed envelope stilled the world.
In addition to the license plate, a small white card was included. A black and white photo from what looked like the 1920s attached to the top — seven women, in long dresses and fascinators standing outside a victorian building. And a note: “a relic from an earlier era, in hopes of a new and better one.”
The sender was a neighbor. An older, upper-middle-class man, about whom I know little. His kind gesture reminded me that we all have a role in this work. That the future is bright. That every effort toward the righteous goal of equality, is worth it — “In hopes of a new and better [era].”
Emily Bell McCormick is the owner of a boutique communication and advocacy consulting firm and founder of The Policy Project, a group working to implement healthy policy in Utah and the U.S.