Kelly Whited Jones: 100 years later, women are still fighting for equality and the ERA

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly Jones, left, and Jody England Hansen dress up as Silent Sentinels (women who protested outside the White House a century ago for suffrage), as they attend the legislative session on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, to encourage Utah legislators to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

This week commemorates one hundred years of work to ensure full constitutional equality under the law through the Equal Rights Amendment.

On July 22, 1923, the ERA, initially called the Lucretia Mott Amendment, was read from the pulpit of Weslayan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, under the leadership of Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. Addressing the National Women’s Party and having just won the right for white women to vote, they knew women would not be truly equal until the courts and the U.S. Constitution recognized them as people, not property.

In 2023, we have never been closer to seeing the ERA fully certified. Just as early equality efforts faced difficulties, this final stretch requires a similar resilience.

Opponents are invested in walking back the hard-won rights women have gained since the 1920s when the ERA was first proposed in Congress, and the 1970s when it passed the House and Senate and went to the states to ratify. Excuses for nonsupport include procedure, or the timeline, but consider for a moment why a seven-year timeline was applied in the first place?

Why did this Amendment receive an arbitrary timeline, while other amendments have none?

They wanted to stop it. This spring, the D.C. court upheld that Congress has the power to extend or remove the timeline altogether.

Utah women fought for the ERA for a century. LDS General Relief Society President Amy Brown Lyman and General Young Women’s President Lucy Grant Cannon championed the ERA in the 1940s.

Helen Papanikolas, Esther Landa, and Reva Beck Besone used their work in our community to ensure equal treatment and spoke out for the ERA in their time.

Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham, Congresswoman Karen Shepherd, Eileen Fisher, and Carol Lynn Pearson, all worked tirelessly to ratify the ERA in Utah in the 1970s. Pearson’s journal entry on June 30, 1982, the day the timeline expired expressed the deep disappointment so many woman felt, “So today is the day. The ERA failed. I feel that most of the energy that has been directed against the ERA has been very calculatedly misogynistic. And that is sad indeed. But I believe the issue is not dead. Certainly the change in consciousness about women that it represents is not dead. And hopefully the ERA itself is not dead. A new perception is here and it will not go away.”

The ERA did not go away.

Ratifications by neighboring state Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020, mean that the ERA awaits only removal of the timeline and the signature of the U.S. Archivist to become law.

Women brought the ERA back to Utah in 2016 with the help of Sen. Jim Dabakis, Rep. Karen Kwan, and Sens. Kathleen Riebe and Kirk Cullimore. Their bills garnered broad support across the state, with two independent polls finding that over 71% of Utahns want the ERA ratified in Utah.

With such a proud history of equality efforts in our state, it is imperative that we not only commemorate the work of those who came before, but stand unwavering in pursuit of constitutional equality now. We must require that Utah representatives in Congress stand up for us in this historic moment.

When signed into law, the ERA will have two years to take full effect and sort out the legal definitions. First, the ERA will ensure that federal laws cannot discriminate based on sex. Secondly, the courts will be required to use a stricter standard in sex discrimination cases under the ERA. This means that more of us will find justice in the courts.

Why does this matter for Utahns? In 2023, prosecutors in Utah sent only 11% of sexual assault cases to court. Domestic violence laws fail to protect survivors, with Utah’s 1 in 3 rate of domestic assault even higher than the national average of 1 in 4. Human resource offices fail to protect women employees. Those who report abuses are often penalized, lose jobs, or face costly court fees.

The laws that should protect us, many passed in the 1970s, have been watered down and lack the strict scrutiny standard needed to ensure justice. They do not fully protect women in the workplace, on campus, and in the home. A hundred years later, and we still need a constitutional amendment for that.

Despite significant gains made over this century, women face great obstacles to equality in 2023. Just this year, women became second-class citizens with rights to medical privacy and bodily autonomy removed, while men’s medical rights remain intact. Equality standards have been stripped from education admissions. Corporate gender discrimination has been codified in law.

We cannot afford to rest on the work of women over this past century. Rather, it is up to us to carry the ERA forward to fruition.

Sign here to compel Congress to act on the ERA www.sign4ERA.org. Learn more about current efforts in Utah to ratify the ERA and join in this important work at www.utahera.org.

Utah remains one of only 12 unratified states. After 100 years, it is time – past time – to finish what Utah women have championed for their lifetimes, and what pioneering women started a century ago in Seneca Falls. Looking forward, Carol Lynn Pearson offers congratulations to the women and men in Utah who continue to champion the ERA, and gives her “personal blessing and belief that success is near.”

Kelly Whited Jones

Kelly Whited Jones is an educator, fundraiser, advocate and a founding member and current chair of the Utah ERA Coalition. The Utah ERA Coalition is made up of thousands of Utahns, and 30 local and national organizations to ratify the ERA, the next step for ERA Ratification.