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The Equal Rights Amendment and the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington

Many people think that the ERA is an outdated idea that evokes pictures of white suffragettes in bloomers, but there are several reasons why it's important.
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Every day this week events are being held to commemorate the upcoming 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington, which took place on August 28th. Next week, as part of these events, a diverse coalition of women's rights groups is participating in the National Action Network's "Jobs, Justice and Freedom" rally on August 24th.

As Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen wrote yesterday in an excellent piece, Building a New Racial Justice Movement, "The seminal event we commemorate this week was a march for "jobs and freedom," not a march for civil rights. We can assert collective strength and unity toward those goals with analysis that is explicit about race, campaigns that fight for economic and cultural as well as political change, and organizing that is grounded in a multiracial constituency." The same can be said for the dimension of sex.

Despite a seriously fraught history, movements for racial justice and gender justice have always been inextricably bound. For women of color, they're not just bound, they are embodied and their effects are felt every day. In the practical arena of jobs and freedoms, the combined effects of sex- and color-based inequality are evident. The pay gap defined by race and sex is illustrative. An Hispanic woman makes .55 cents to every dollar earned by a white man, that number is .68 cents for African American women and .77 cents for white women. The factors that lead to these gaps are well documented and complex, but some of this gap is simple sexism. As of this week, a large percentage of women, nearly 30% of women report experiencing discrimination in the workplace, often tied directly to pay. Discrimination like this requires "strict scrutiny," which is not supported by our Constitution. Instead, we have powerful conservatives with disproportionate power in state legislatures (who believe that money "is more important for men," remember?), pushing legislative agendas make it harder to confront pay discrimination. Despite being written in 1923, these scant two dozen words from the Equal Rights Amendment are pithy enough to tweet, and would change the trajectory of our national conversations about topics like this one:

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Yes, the ERA. Again. JUST PASS IT ALREADY. Thought we had? Or that something else in the Constitution protects people on the basis of sex? We don't. Many people think that the ERA is an outdated idea that evokes pictures of white suffragettes in bloomers, but, there are several reasons why it's important:

1) The ERA would shift the way in which sex discrimination cases are dealt. "Sex" would be a classification requiring "strict scrutiny," like race, sexuality, As The Feminist Majority puts it, "Those fighting sex discrimination would no longer have to prove discrimination, but instead those who discriminate would have to prove that they did not violate the Constitution." Think about the millions of women who've faced pay discrimination at Walmart, but still can't sue as a class, because they can't show they "have enough in common."

2) Passage of the ERA will institutionalize equitable considerations of women's need as they differ from men's. Currently, our normative interpretation of laws is based almost entirely on men's needs, bodies, experiences and life stages. For example, in the study reported on by Covert, the majority of men surveyed, "feel that the "country has made most of the changes needed to give women equal rights as men," but just 29 percent of women felt the same." These "feelings" become the basis for legislation, norms and discrimination that is perpetuated and unaddressed.

3) Without the ERA, gains made for and by women remain vulnerable, politically negotiable and constantly at risk. Some believe that the 14 Amendment secures women's rights under the Constitution. But, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is fond of explaining why this is not the case: "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws." The 14 Amendment was not written to include women and gives no guarantee based on sex. His point is about which government institution should decide, but laws - an judges and their minds - can be easily changed.

4) The passage of the ERA is an important cultural symbol.

Discrimination affects our work, pay, education, pensions, quality of life, long-term health, financial security and physical safety. And, because apparently we need to keep saying this out loud, the discrimination we face as women is inseparable from the reality of racism.

Which brings me back to the March celebrations this week and to Dr. Reverend Pauli Murray. Chances are fairly high that you have never heard of her. She was a brilliant black, gay, woman scholar, lawyer and priest, and an activist to boot. In 1965, Murray wrote "Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII." Murray was one of the most outspoken critics of the sexism of the Civil Rights Movement, including the conduct of leaders at the 1963 March. Something that you rarely hear about the March is that men and women leaders did not participate on equal footing. Men marched down Pennsylvania, with members of the press. Women, such as Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates and others, walked down Independence Avenue, separately. They also had extremely limited exposure on the stage, and no women leaders were invited to join the men who went to the White House. (Just as an interesting aside, Congress, the seat of white male power, had fewer than 15 women and 6% minority representation in 1963. It was not until 2011 that women in the House were even provided with a nearby bathroom.)

Murray openly castigated the movement's leadership for this failure to acknowledge the role fo women in the movement and three years after the March on Washington she became one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), in the hope that that organization could better represent women's rights. (You should stop and read about her remarkable life.) Last month, NOW adopted a new resolution to endorse and make contributions to political candidates who support the ERA.

Media erasures of women's work are powerful because they contribute to imbalances in power that affect people's lives everyday. That is true both in mainstream media and within movements for social justice. We don't like talking about power differentials, it's hard and unpleasant. But really necessary. As Ren pointed out, "Conversations about racism in the U.S. today are usually devoid of any mention of history, power or policy," and usually focused on individuals and their behavior. We loathe considerations of social context and history. This is also true of misogyny, and sexism.

Next week, women won't march on a different avenue the way they did in 1963. However, today, women make up only 18% of Congress, with slim minority representation; we earn less, and we face the effects of sex based discrimination and gender violence in everything from immigration policy and education to health care and mass incarceration. We live with violence and physical insecurity - often legal - everyday, poorer, more-likely-to-be-darker women especially.

"We have to stand together with a single goal," explains Desiree Jordan, founder of Unite Women NY, one of the leaders of renewed ERA efforts and an organizer of the rally on the 24. "Constitutional equality for all. We can't deny equal rights to half of our population and at the same time claim to be "leaders of the free world." As she points out, as a country, we are keen on making sure acknowledgement for women's equal rights is written into other countries' constitutions.

As David Rothkopf put it earlier this year, "the underrepresentation of women in positions of power is proof not so much that men still dominate the top of the pyramid as it is of a system of the most egregious, widespread, pernicious, destructive pattern of human rights abuses in the history of civilization." Being "equal enough" in the United States is squarely part of this global sex-based caste system. It's beyond embarrassing that we haven't passed the Equal Rights Amendment, a necessary step to dismantling "traditional" discriminatory power. Really, watch Rachel Maddow's review of objections, it's priceless.

Its opponents remain as committed to institutionalized, pretty white, male supremacy as they are committed to institutionalized racism and homophobia. All because those things are good for families and the nation. Unisex bathrooms remain a threat to the nation. That's really not the side of history we should be on.

"These anniversaries of the struggles of the 1960s are giving us a new look at the connections between a variety of struggles," says Sen. "If it also gives us a chance to adopt the solutions we couldn't manage before, all the better."