The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee equal rights for women, and spotlighted the unfair treatment of women for decades.
When the unfairness affected women we knew, it brought home the need for healing. I saw the need up-close. A widow in our family did much of her male supervisor's work for much less pay. A friend's mother and her children had to hide from her abusive husband. Some men I knew regarded women as objects, or second-class citizens. The umbrella of ERA's language was wide enough to raise the hopes for victims of wide-ranging inequalities and inequities.
But, as I would discover as a state representative in Illinois' 82nd General Assembly, things are not always as they seem.
Intense interest in passing or defeating ERA had been percolating for years. After the U.S. Congress passed the amendment in 1972, 38 state legislatures would have to ratify it. Three more states were needed as the June 30, 1982 deadline approached. Illinois, came into the crosshairs of highly motivated, well-organized supporters on both sides of the issue.
Hundreds for and against ERA flooded my Oak Park and Springfield offices with questions and answers that were useful in exploring the amendment's complex ramifications. I was eager to learn because I wanted to vote on ERA solely on its merits — more as a citizen juror.
To that end, I investigated the intent, legislative history and likely consequences of ERA. Its broad language allowed proponents of diverse views to find support for their positions in it, ranging from moderate to radical. For most, however, ERA meant "fairness," narrowly defined as equal treatment of women and men based on their essential similarity when performing the same tasks or functions. The most extreme version of this flowed from an early legal expert testifying before Congress that women and men differed only anatomically. This testimony was considered seminal in ERA's legislative history, which legislators, judges and executives needed to consult in applying the amendment. But, if they applied it rigorously, it could lead to extreme consequences for society — blurring meaningful distinctions between women and men and denying their rights corresponding to their differing gifts and needs.
Many experts, including moderate ERA supporters, opposed a radical interpretation of the amendment, which might encourage the most inhumane outcomes of rape, abortion, spousal neglect, and women in combat.
To process this objectively required suspending judgment on ERA until I'd fully explored the issues. This meant hours of serious dialog with leaders on both sides, including then-governor James Thompson, an ERA proponent who invited several of us undecided legislators to one-on-one sessions (eight, in my case). At one point, he suggested that we poll our constituents on ERA. While conducting this poll, I found a surprising number opposed it — not only just moderate or conservative voters. I saw the issue dividing families I knew, pitting males against females, threatening a kind of cultural civil war.
After months of searching for an objective evaluation of ERA beyond the all-consuming passions on both sides, I found one offered by a legal expert. Beyond just a critique, he presented a more profound and comprehensive way to understand women's rights.
He argued for "justice" more than fairness — justice narrowly defined as equal rights, specifically appropriate to each sex. His argument showed how this could be better achieved through an approach that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution suggested.
This approach would seek an equality respecting meaningful differences between men and women without socially destructive consequences — a more flexible, constructive way of winning women's rights.
On June 30, 1982, after concluding that the vision expressed in the 14th Amendment offered a better approach to women's rights than the ERA, I voted with the 72 opposed to the latter amendment. One hundred and three voted for it, but that fell short of the necessary 3/5th supermajority required for passage.
Without Illinois, ERA lost. But women's quest for their full rights has since advanced, winning qualitative victories the ERA sought — in new heights of achievement and expanded thinking about their roles. In the early years battling over ERA, women strove to compete equally with men in the workplace. Now, despite ERA's defeat, women are generally more respected and successful in new ways in American society, using their unique gifts both in their careers and in raising families.
Even if these developments are unrelated to specific applications of the 14th Amendment, they accord well with its vision of equal rights, suggesting it was perhaps deeply woven into our culture. Thus, the vote on ERA and the debate it engendered in the months before, and years after, have left their marks on our thinking and our living — mysteriously so, since losing may have ultimately meant winning.
Redd Griffin, a longtime Oak Park resident, is a former state representative of parts of Oak Park, Forest Park and Chicago in the early 1980s.
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