More than 45 years after it was approved by Congress, Illinois has become the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Illinois House passed the measure 72-45 on Wednesday ― more than three decades after the expiration of the ratification deadline. The state Senate voted in favor of the resolution, 43-12, last month. The measure does not require the approval of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“I am appalled and embarrassed that the state of Illinois has not done this earlier,” said Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Aurora) following the House vote, the Chicago Tribune reported. “I am proud to be on this side of history and I am proud to support not only all the women that this will help, that this will send a message to, but I am also here to be a role model for my daughter.”
The constitutional amendment, which declares that equality of rights “shall not be denied by the U.S. or any state on account of sex,” was first introduced in Congress in the 1920s. It was sent to the states for ratification in 1972, but only 35 states ratified the amendment by the congressionally set 1982 deadline — three states short of the 38 required to append it to the Constitution.
The issue languished in the intervening decades and was generally assumed to be a lost cause. But last year, debate around the amendment was revived when Nevada chose to ratify it. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that pay inequality, as well as perceptions that the Trump administration was rolling back women’s rights, had spurred the Nevada vote.
Roberta Madden of the ERA-NC Alliance in North Carolina, a state that has yet to ratify the amendment, said the Me Too movement has also played a role in propelling momentum for the ERA in recent years.
“There’s been a lot more interest and a lot more attention in the news media about some of the wrongs against women and the inequalities that we face,” Madden told Vox. “That’s focused the attention in a way that it hasn’t before.”
With Illinois now on board, just one more state is required in order to ratify the amendment. According to the State-Journal Register, Congress will then need to remove the deadline for it to be included in the Constitution.
The states that have yet to ratify the amendment are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah.
The tight vote in the Illinois House underscores how political the issue is and the challenges that supporters will face as the amendment inches toward potential approval. Abortion is a central part of the debate. Opponents argue that the amendment is merely a “smokescreen” to enable the removal of abortion restrictions.
“The only alleged benefit I can see and that I’ve heard about or seen argued in court is that it will expand taxpayer funding of abortions,” said Illinois Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) this week, per the Register. “They have no other thing they want to do, and they’ll say ‘it’s silliness to talk about that.’”
Supporters refuted the suggestion that the amendment was about abortion, and said it remains “relevant and necessary” to codify equal rights for women in the document that forms the foundation of all U.S. law.
“By ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, we can provide a strong legal protection for women’s rights and prevent rollbacks from Congress or presidential administrations,” Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who sponsored the resolution in the Senate, said in a statement. “This amendment is still relevant and necessary.”
Unisex bathrooms and allowing men to compete on women’s sports teams were also concerns that opponents raised.
Illinois Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) argued that women are already amply protected under the law and it’s men that need to just “stop the sexual harassment” and other offenses against women.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in this area, and we have a number of laws on the books already to protect women,” Ives said. “The fact of the matter is that women will not be protected until men decide to protect them and decide to stop the sexual harassment, decide to stop the domestic abuse, decide to stop the sex trafficking, decide in the workplaces when they are in charge that they will protect the women under their charge.”
Steans urged Virginia’s legislature, which considered ratifying the amendment earlier this year but failed to do so, to take up the issue again.
“After nearly 50 years of opposition, we are just one state away from ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution,” Steans said. “I encourage my colleagues in Virginia to continue the charge and become the final state to ratify the ERA.”
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to include additional details about how the Me Too movement has influenced the push for the ERA.