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Putting women back in the debate

This past Monday, Aug. 26, was Women's Equality Day. Most Americans don't even know what it is, and aside from commemorations by a few female leaders on Capitol Hill, it is hardly noticed.

But it marks one of the most important days of the last century for women...the day the final state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920...and women were granted the vote.

That year also marked what suffragists of the time thought would soon be another constitutional milestone, the Equal Rights Amendment. With their newfound franchise, women believed they could convince legislators to put women on equal footing in the Constitution with men (white men from the beginning, black men since passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868). The ERA was penned by Alice Paul, the suffragist jailed for picketing the White House and nearly starved in Occoquan prison outside Washington.

But it was not to be. Here we are, 87 years later - a lifetime in anyone's book - and women still haven't achieved equal constitutional status. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA was not passed and sent to the states for ratification until 1972, with an artificial time limit of only seven years for approval by the states. In that brief time it was ratified by 35 states, but was stopped three states short by millions of corporate dollars backing Phyllis Schlafly's anti-woman storm troopers, who feared unisex toilets more than they valued freedom from discrimination.

Most U.S. citizens don't remember that fight, and many believe the ERA was ratified. The reality is that the legal rights women currently enjoy are not rooted in the Constitution, but in a series of statutes like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, executive orders like affirmative action, and various rules interpreting laws such as Title IX, guaranteeing equal educational opportunity. Because we don't have an ERA, depending on their origin, all of these can be revoked in the dead of night by any simple majority of Congress, bureaucrats in a hostile administration, or the president himself.

George W. Bush and company know this very well. They have been systematically eroding the gains women have made since they took office. They have weakened Title IX through rule changes. A major one now allows schools to force girls, but not boys, to prove they are interested in participating in sports before they are given the chance to play, and so-called "separate but equal" single sex public schools are allowed for the first time since 1972.

With the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the assaults on women's employment rights and legal abortions have begun in earnest. Wasting no time, the Court has already upheld the first federal abortion ban since Roe v. Wade, and severely limited women's right to sue in cases where they've experienced pay discrimination.

Recently renamed the Women's Equality Amendment by its chief sponsor, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the ERA is the essence of brevity: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." That's the whole thing. A simple concept that had the blessing of both political parties until the Republicans struck it from their platform in 1980 and the Democrats followed suit in 2004.

It's high time the ERA was put back in the center of public debate, and this long election season is the perfect opportunity.

Office seekers not remembering that right to vote we celebrated on the 26th do so at their peril. Women are now the majority of the electorate, and can control any election. Close to 80 percent of the public, both female and male, favor an Equal Rights Amendment. Candidates of both parties for the Congress and the presidency ought to be listening.

Martha Burk is the director for the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.

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