It’s hard to fathom, says U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, why the Equal Rights Amendment — which Congress sent to the states for ratification when he was a young state delegate 51 years ago — is still not part of the Constitution.
“It’s basic fairness,” the Maryland Democrat said of the ERA, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate in 1972, beginning a winding path that supporters believe will eventually make it the 28th Amendment.
Cardin was 28 then. He turned 80 on Oct. 5, but a few things have not changed. He remains passionate about the ERA and still believes it will be ratified, even if he sometimes appears incredulous that it has taken this long.
The ERA would enshrine women’s equality in the Constitution by mandating that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
With Cardin as a supporter, Maryland was among the first states to ratify the ERA in 1972. Thirty-five states — three fewer than needed — approved it by the deadline, which was originally 1979 but extended to 1982.
“I knew we had a long way to go in 1979,” Cardin said. “But I am proud of the progress we’ve made.”
He noted that women constitute 28% of the members of the House and Senate. While far less than their percentage of the general population (a little more than 50%), that is a record high.
Three additional states — Nevada, Illinois and Virginia — ratified the ERA in recent years, but opponents argue that it is meaningless since the original deadline was not met. Two years after Virginia ratified the ERA in 2020, Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares said his state would halt legal efforts to get the ratification recognized by the federal government.
Many ERA backers say it would bolster abortion rights, expand protections against discrimination in employment, health care and other fields, and broaden federal authority to legislate against gender-based violence.
The measure has encountered resistance from Republicans who argue that it contains vague language and isn’t needed because the 14th Amendment protects women by ensuring equal protection under the law.
If the issue has appeared to recede in the public consciousness over the years, that may be because “most Americans think it’s in our Constitution” already, said Cardin, interviewed recently in the Capitol Hill office he will vacate when he retires from the Senate at the end of next year.
“Many states, including Maryland, have an ERA in their constitutions. The language is different in different states,” Cardin said. “But we still need the federal protection because there are tens of millions of women that are not protected in the states in which they live. And secondly, the states’ protection is not as strong as federal protection.”
To Cardin, the ERA will forever be tied to the women in his life, including Myrna, his wife of nearly 60 years, and his late mother, Dora, a schoolteacher. “You really get personal about it,” he said. “My wife has been extremely active and a real ally. And then, of course, I’m blessed with a daughter and two granddaughters.”
Cardin has been introducing Senate resolutions since 2012 to give the ERA a new shot by erasing previous deadlines for states to ratify it. He says the Constitution does not mandate a deadline for states to ratify amendments. None of his measures have gained the 60 votes needed to overcome Senate filibusters.
“We have a strict interpretation standard that applies to discrimination on race and religion. We want the same protection on gender,” Cardin said.
Bettina Hager, the Washington, D.C., director of the ERA Coalition, an advocacy organization, has worked with Cardin on the issue. “I think it would be completely wonderful to see Sen. Cardin, who’s put so much time and effort in this, be the person who is the lead sponsor when it gets across the finish line,” she said.
Should Congress revive the ERA after Cardin departs in January 2025, “it wouldn’t have happened without all the leadership that he’s shown over the past decade-plus,” Hager said.
Cardin began his political career as a member of the House of Delegates in 1967 while still a law student. The senator, who lives in Pikesville, will have served three six-year terms when he leaves. He has emphasized international human rights, the ERA, and assisting Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.
In April, Cardin’s most recent effort to overcome a Republican-led filibuster on the ERA received 51 votes, although one supporter, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, missed the vote due to illness, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his vote from “yes” to “no” in a procedural maneuver to allow Democrats to bring up the resolution at a later date.
Before the vote, about a dozen U.S. House supporters of the amendment — led by Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — marched across the Capitol to the Senate chamber loudly chanting, “ERA! Now!”
Two of the chamber’s 49 Republicans, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, supported the measure.
Afterward, Cardin appeared outside the Capitol at an upbeat news conference with Schumer, Pressley and other ERA supporters, including actor and activist Alyssa Milano.
“There is no deadline on equality,” Cardin said.
The ERA was first proposed in 1923 by women’s suffrage movement leaders.
Zakiya Thomas, president and CEO of the ERA Coalition, said her organization emphasizes educating people that the ERA has not been ratified, and that the “patchwork of laws we have to protect against discrimination” is not enough.
“We’re 100 years into the process of the Equal Rights Amendment,” Thomas said “And in our life span, that’s a long thing, but in the life span of moving progress and moving a nation, I think it’s a short window and I’m very excited about the kind of energy we’re seeing around this.”