Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will announce that his panel intends to mark up a bill eliminating the deadline for states to adopt the amendment, known as the ERA, which was one state short of the 38 needed for ratification when the deadline passed in 1982.
The aim is to clear the way for Virginia — where Democrats have just won control of the Legislature and are eager to approve the amendment — to become that final state. Although legal experts debate whether Congress’ deadline was ever constitutionally valid, and whether it can now remove that deadline, doing so would seem to help carve a legal path for the amendment to be written into the Constitution. But both the House and the Republican-led Senate would have to vote to do so.
“It is now highly likely that if we eliminate the deadline, Virginia will ratify and become the 38th state, and then the ERA can go into effect as a constitutional amendment,” Nadler said in an interview Friday. “So it’s time to do it.”
First proposed by women’s suffragists in 1923 and adopted by Congress in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would bar discrimination on the basis of sex, has for decades been a dream of women’s rights advocates. Its language is simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Nadler’s move is part of a string of recent gains for the amendment’s backers, who struggled for years to get politicians of both parties to pay attention to their cause. Five years ago, they founded the ERA Coalition, a nonpartisan umbrella organization for groups that favor seeing the amendment enacted.
Bettina Hager, the coalition’s chief operating officer, said that as recently as 2016, she “was practically begging” for Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential nominee, to talk about the amendment, but the Clinton campaign was unreceptive.
Now, Hager said, Democratic presidential candidates are not only mentioning the amendment, but competing to embrace it. Without her group’s prompting, Julián Castro raised the issue in a Democratic debate, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Vice President Joe Biden quickly followed suit.
“Senator Harris said, ‘I’m going to pass the ERA and I support this,’ and Vice President Biden said, ‘Hey, I’ve been working on that for decades,’ ” Hager said. “It was almost humorous to see them one-upping the other.”
While the House is likely to vote to eliminate the deadline, the measure’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., are co-sponsoring a companion measure to the House bill. And while Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has pronounced the Senate a graveyard for progressive legislation in the House, Republicans are also looking for ways to attract female voters.
Republicans have a long history with the amendment. It was first incorporated into the Republican platform in 1940 — four years before it was added to the Democratic platform. It took three more decades for the ERA to pass both the House and the Senate with the required two-thirds majority.
The measure was then sent to the states for ratification with a seven-year deadline. When that deadline passed in 1979, Congress extended it to 1982.
While women have made great strides in their push for equality since then, Nadler and other proponents say the amendment is necessary because of loopholes in other laws. While Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against women in the workplace, it applies only to workplaces with 15 or more employees. While Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools, it only applies to schools that receive federal funding.
Fatima Goss Graves, the chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said the amendment was the next frontier for women’s rights, as millions of women were speaking out about their experiences with sexual violence through the #MeToo movement, and activists had mobilized against abortion restrictions and around efforts to close the wage gap between men and women.
“This is a movement in search of our collective right to be equal in this country,” Goss Graves said. “There is value in our foundational documents fully reflecting that equality.”
And Hager noted that while legislation can be rolled back, only one constitutional amendment — the one enacting prohibition — has been reversed.
“The most important part of the Equal Rights Amendment is that it is a statement of principle and permanence,” she said. “This is an incredible moment for us and for all women.”
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