Michelle Quist: Why Utahns should care about the ERA

If the Utah Legislature does not approve it this year, we will know what its members think of women.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) This Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, photo, supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment as they rally at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

I walked into my friend’s office next to mine overlooking Wall Street and the New York City skyline and asked her, incredulously, but with a whisper of understanding, “They’re taking away my work because I’m pregnant, aren’t they?”

Confused that I didn’t already understand, she looked down and then met my eyes with something between pity and shame, “Yes.”

As a young associate at a large law firm in the early 2000′s I thought I had made it. I had gone to Brigham Young University Law School and defied the odds — I graduated unmarried and went to work in the big city from a non-Ivy-League school. Gender discrimination? Nah. That didn’t exist. I mean, look where I was.

I was blissfully ignorant of gender issues as a young attorney in New York City. Until I wasn’t.

I’ve written before about this experience with pregnancy discrimination. To successfully hold my law firm accountable for their very clear discrimination, I would have had to overcome higher legal barriers than if the equal status of women was in the text of the Constitution itself.

And that’s only one of the benefits of passing the ERA.

Yes, I’m talking about the ERA again. It was an issue last year as a few states across the nation raced to be the 38th state to ratify it. Utah was in the running, but not for long. Virginia was the 38th state to ratify the ERA, just over a year ago.

I wrote about the reasons to pass the ERA last year, including that it’s good for families, good for business, and an opportunity for the Republican Party.

I also debunked the outdated and nonsensical arguments against it, including how the ERA won’t affect cultural battles over abortion, the military draft, the definition of the word “sex,” or single-gender bathrooms. Just like it had no effect on the battle over same-sex marriage.

For example, one of the arguments against the ERA last year was that it would cause a change in custody rights relating to divorce. But the issue is alive regardless of the ERA. There is a bill currently proposed that would create a rebuttable presumption in favor of joint legal and physical custody. And nobody can blame that on the ERA.

The requisite number of states have now ratified the ERA, and Congress is now working to remove the old deadline to ratify (as has been done with other amendments).

In Utah, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, with co-sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, and Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, are running a bipartisan resolution to ratify the ERA. The fact that the effort is bipartisan this year is tremendous. After all, at least 94% of Americans support ratifying the amendment.

Even though enough states have already ratified the amendment, it still matters that Utah pass this resolution.

Utah legislators should pass this resolution because the U.S. Constitution does not currently guarantee equal rights for women, and it should. The Constitution was purposefully written to exclude women and African Americans. It’s time that women were included.

In fact, the U.S. Constitution should guarantee equal rights just as the Utah Constitution does. The fact that the parade of horribles hasn’t come to pass in Utah — which already includes a provision guaranteeing equal rights to women in its Constitution — proves that the ERA won’t result in the downfall of civilized society.

Utah legislators should pass this resolution because it’s good for families. It recognizes women as equal in home and civic economies. It could aid in ensuring women receive equal pay, including single mothers supporting children.

And finally, Utah legislators should pass this resolution because it’s a message bill actually worth the message — women are equal. Utahns say they believe that. The argument that such a concept is true with or without the constitutional amendment does nothing to bolster an argument against ratification. If it’s unnecessary because women are already equal, then put it in writing and send a message to women that equality matters.

If it dies in committee again this year, Utah women will understand what their legislators think of them.

To those Utahns against the ERA because of some illusory detrimental effect on women and society in general, I encourage you to reexamine ways in which you might have been blinded by old arguments and rhetoric. The Equal Rights Amendment is about equality for women. Full stop. Opposition to such a proposition belongs in the past.

I echo the sentiment of Joseph F. Smith when speaking on the issue of the wage gap all the way back in 1895:

“Let them who will not enter into the door of equal rights and impartial suffrage step aside, and leave the passage clear for those who desire to enter … Many women are afraid of woman’s suffrage because monopolizing men have tried to frighten them from seeking their right. Let no woman be deterred for a moment from her whole duty by such contemptible twaddle.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Quist.

Michelle Quist is a Salt Lake City attorney and a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.