WASHINGTON — Equal Rights Amendment advocates think this could be their moment.
As women increasingly come forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment, advocates are seeing the “me too” movement as an opportunity to renew their push for Constitutional protections against sexual discrimination.
“If you ever feel like you don’t think that we need to have some changes, I’m going to just say two words to you: Harvey Weinstein,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said Friday, naming the Hollywood producer accused by dozens of women of rape, assault and harassment. “The only way we’re protected is to have ironclad protection in the United States Constitution. Is it so challenging to say that women and men should have equality of opportunity, equality of protection under the law?”
Women with “ERA YES” signs led by Maloney gathered in New York Friday in one of the first public events linking the scandals involving Hollywood, Congressional and newsroom leaders to the call for an ERA. They urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep Wall Street’s iconic “Fearless Girl” statue in place until an ERA is ratified.
More rallies and lobbying will follow as advocates work to explain the connection between the scandals and need for the ERA, said Bettina Hager, the ERA Coalition’s Washington director.
“We’ve been making this push for a while and this is just more fuel to why we need an Equal Rights Amendment,” she said.
Anne Hedgepeth, top policy advisor for the American Association of University Women, said, “We are considering and pushing all levers we have, be it around enforcement, new legislative fixes and even longstanding goals like the ERA.”
The ERA would prohibit denying equal rights on the basis of sex in the same way the U.S. already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin.
Congress passed the amendment in 1972, but it wasn’t ratified by the requisite number of states by the 1982 deadline. Democrats have pushed legislation to either remove the ratification deadline or start over, but both proposals have languished.
Advocates say the another sign of momentum is Nevada’s ratification of the ERA in March, 35 years after the deadline. Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, two short of the total needed.
Conservative groups opposing the move argued it was unnecessary, and would overturn laws or programs that benefit women and dismantle restrictions on abortion.
Part of the difficulty is that most Americans — 80%, according to a 2016 poll commissioned on behalf of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality — believe men and women are already guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., whose bill would remove the deadline.
If Americans knew they lacked that Constitutional protection, “I think there would be more of an outrage, and particularly with what we’ve seen recently,” Cardin said in an interview.
Without the ERA, women’s rights and protections have been vulnerable, depending on Congress and the Supreme Court, Maloney said.
Maloney said she has reintroduced her bill 11 times, but she believes now could be its moment. Now that women have spoken out about harassment, she said, it’s time to go to the second phase of, “What do you do about it?”
Legislative staff for Cardin and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who also sponsored a bill, brainstormed with advocates on a conference call Thursday on how to use the momentum and discussion about sexual harassment to advance the legislation, according to Hager.
Hager said she hopes to find allies among lawmakers who have sponsored other bills targeting harassment as well as Republicans who have spoken out against the scandals.
The political climate in Washington for passage of an ERA amendment isn’t ideal, Cardin said. Of Maloney’s 108 cosponsors, only five are Republicans. None of the other bills has a Republican cosponsor, a significant hurdle in a GOP-controlled Congress.
“It’s not the ideal moment, but I think the issue of gender equality and the need for Constitutional protection has never been more obvious,” Cardin said. “I know the political climate we have, but I think the case is pretty strong right now.”