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The ERA Zombie Walks the Earth

April 03, 2007

The ERA Zombie Walks the Earth

They are back, just when you thought it was safe. I mean the Feminazi crowd. And guess what they have in store for you? Why, they intend to re-introduce the Equal Rights Amendment in both Houses of Congress. The original fight should have been over in 1977 but then Congress gave the ladies (please forgive that term in this context) another several years to complete ratification. So you thought the fight was over by 1982? No, not at all. This time the authors of the ERA assure us that they will have no time limit for ratification. And there you have it: ERA forever.

Certainly whatever legitimate issues raised by the ERA ratification fight have long since been overtaken by reality. This issue now appears to be generational. Older women who were of that bent still consider the failure to ratify the ERA a blot on their sisterhood. Younger women have no idea what that fight was about and most could care less. ERA proponents must obtain a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress to send the proposed amendment to the States. If the ratification process were to go that far ERA proponents would find a very different political landscape than they found when they first went to the States in 1972.

For those who don”€™t recall the fight, the ERA yes crowd had a roller coaster ride the likes of which never had been seen. The first States ratified the Amendment in the wee hours of the morning on the day after the bill cleared the United States Senate. Day after day one State after another ratified the proposed Amendment. ERA proponents had created an image of invincibility. Commentators plotted the number of remaining days before the requisite three-quarters of the States would have ratified ERA. Once and for all, the Equal Rights Amendment would have been enshrined in the Constitution. But the pace began to slow: only eight States ratified the Amendment in 1973 and three in 1974. By then Watergate was happening and Republicans everywhere were taking a bath in special elections.

Along came Phyllis Schlafly, of Alton Illinois, President of the Eagle Forum. For years she had cultivated friends in the Illinois Legislature. Meanwhile Eagle Forum was building up a head of steam due to Mrs. Schlafly’s leadership. ERA passed in Illinois by a simple majority vote but was unable to muster the three-fifths majority required to ratify ERA. Just a fluke, ERA proponents told themselves. The upshot was that ERA came with-in three states of ratification. Then Phyllis had an extra present for the proponents. She led a campaign for rescission and several States followed through.  ERA proponents argued that once a State ratified an amendment it had no authority to repeal that ratification. A couple of States were prepared to argue their case before the Supreme Court but the time allowed for ratification expired. In an unprecedented move, Congress extended the time for ratification. In fact, when the issue came up, Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) personally eyeballed almost every Senator and counted a substantial majority which agreed that the time extension should not be granted. You can imagine Garn’s disgust when a majority of the Senate voted to give ERA another time extension. Most could not look Garn in the eye because they clearly had told him they were against the time extension. When he finally tracked down the Senators who had broken their word he heard excuses, such as “€œWhen I looked at my eight-year old daughter as I was leaving the house, I thought to myself “€˜I can”€™t do this to her.”€™”€ Most of the others said their wives had been on their case and to keep peace in the family they felt they had to reverse positions. Only one Senator of the more than a dozen who changed votes had the courtesy to tell Garn why. That experience remained with Garn to the day he left the Senate. “€œWhen I grew up I was taught that a man’s word was his bond.”€  (He went on to recall an incident during the Depression where his father kept a commitment to deliver some goods to a man who could no longer pay for it.)

ERA proponents made no progress during their time extension. When that time expired Phyllis Schlafly held her second victory dinner with her friends in the Conservative movement, who hailed her as a heroine. She was certain, as was I, that this fight was over once and for all. When ERA was first proposed many opponents said that proponents wanted unisex bathrooms and gay marriage. They claimed that this was the most vicious propaganda that the right had ever adduced. I don”€™t know about unisex bathrooms but many of today’s proponents do want homosexual marriage.

In the House I doubt the ability of the proponents to achieve a two-thirds majority. In the Senate the question is where Senators Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-NC) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) will be. Other Republican female Senators likely will be in the pro-ERA corner. So it is conceivable that the Senate might come close to two thirds. Meanwhile, Phyllis Schlafly, now in her 80s, still is going strong. And she has a strong organization to pick up the fight.

Republicans control more state legislatures than during the first go-around. It may be that, rather than these being a serious legislative effort, ERA proponents simply want to draw a bulls-eye on conservatives at the state and local levels. If that is the case two can play the game. Just ask the good lady from Alton, Illinois.

A Free Congress Foundation Commentary. Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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