The Civil War was all but won. A war that had begun over the matter of whether the United States was divisible or not had become a moral crusade to end slavery once and for all. The anti-slavery Union was about to prevail over the pro-slavery Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation was more than two years old.
So why, in 1865, was Abraham Lincoln employing all the powers of his office and his considerable skills of political persuasion in an attempt to pass and ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? The one that banned slavery from the entire nation forevermore.
Wasn’t the matter settled?
Not by a long shot.
Once the war was over, the moral crusade finished, the legal argument for the Emancipation Proclamation — confiscating property from a hostile power — made moot, the chances that slavery would rise again from the ashes of the Old South were far too great. Something had to be written down, in our most basic law, that made the prohibition of slavery basic to our nation.
The fact that even after the 13th Amendment banning slavery, and the 14th Amendment promising equal protection of the law, were ratified, America began more than a century of official racism collectively called “Jim Crow” proved that Lincoln’s fears were fully justified.
Some may say that the battle for sexual equality is all but won. Women hold public office at all levels across most of the nation and are taken seriously as candidates for president. Of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, three are female. Laws and policies stand against sex discrimination in the workplace and in government. Abortion is a constitutional right. Marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples are recognized (nearly) across the land. Women increasingly participate in all aspects of adult life, including the military.
Women have had the vote for almost 100 years.
So why are we seeing rallies and public calls for action — particularly in Utah — campaigning for this state to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment?
Isn’t the matter settled?
Not by a long shot.
The progress of women toward equality has been significant — some might say amazing — over the past four decades. But, as the experience of African Americans over the last century and a half has shown, progress is never certain. Backsliding is always to be feared. Gains must not only be celebrated but, to the extent humanly possible, cemented.
Women in America are still not assured of being treated as full members of society, in or out of government. Even laws and policies that seek to bring the sexes toward equality are unevenly enforced and subject to being ignored, changed or cast aside depending on the whims of those (often male) who hold power. Discrimination based on gender, marital status, pregnancy and such are less official policy than just old habits that managers (mostly male) fall into unless and until it is made crystal clear that such practices are not acceptable.
The old arguments against gender equality in the Constitution are mostly irrelevant, if not risible, not because they were false so much as because feared changes have come to pass and the nation is, if anything, better for it. Women have — or are at least more likely to have — the right to control their own bodies, to have children or not, to marry or not, to pursue careers or not, to serve in the military or not. The fear of equal rights for gays and lesbians has been established to be absurd.
Even claiming that the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would mostly be symbolic is not convincing, as symbolic acts and statements in a free society have great meaning and influence. Opposing the ERA now must be seen as an attempt to preserve an escape hatch, a chance to reverse all the progress that has been made over the decades.
The ERA does not claim that men and women are identical. That would be absurd.
But it would enshrine in our basic law the idea that men and women are equal before the law. Which is what this country is all about.
Utah should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.