Illinois at center of revived Equal Rights Amendment fight

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In this 1976, file photo, women opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment sit with Phyllis Schlafly, left, national chairman of Stop ERA, at Republican platform subcommittee hearing in Kansas City, Mo.| Associated Press

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Nevada just shot long-needed energy into the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, a battle in which Illinois is very much in the mix.

In March, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA, four decades after the last state — Indiana — did so.

A recap for those unfamiliar with the ERA, a proposed constitutional amendment that once dominated our national conversation. With these 24 words words, it would give equal rights to women and men: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

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That’s what the amendment says. And don’t let anyone fool you into thinking it says anything more or less. All along, that’s been a tactic used to fight passage.

Congress approved the ERA in 1972, which was a heady time for women’s rights. But remember, an amendment becomes part of our Constitution only after approval by legislatures in three-fourths — 38 — of the states. Off the amendment went for ratification, with a seven-year deadline, later extended to 10.

It sure looked like the ERA would become amendment No. 27. But then it stalled. Opponents, led by the savvy late Phyllis Schlafly, convinced lawmakers in Illinois the ERA would force women into the military, abortions would run rampant and wives would no longer cook dinner. (Memory may have me confused on that last point.)

Coupled with the fact that Illinois requires a 3/5th vote of approval by the Legislature, and this state never ratified the amendment. Neither did enough other states.

The deadline passed, and the movement lost steam except among commendable diehards who have continued to fight for women’s equality.

Nevada brings new optimism. It’s “a big deal, a very exciting thing,” says Jeanne Dauray, Illinois state coordinator for ERA Action, which has been seeking passage in key states, including Virginia and Illinois. Virginia legislators said they’d hold a hearing if a 36th state ratified it, according to Dauray. That’s happened; so …

In Illinois, Dauray says her group is working with longtime supportive legislators, including Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago, and Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, to set a date to move the proposal forward. In 2014, the measure passed the Illinois Senate by 39 votes to 11, but was not put to a vote in the House, where there was not sufficient support.

Even if the ERA does not come up for a vote in the current legislative session, it will be remain an election issue in Illinois in 2018. “It isn’t going away,” says Dauray.

Don’t buy into the argument that ratification of the ERA is merely symbolic, either. It “puts women’s rights into the Constitution,” says Susan Straus, Illinois NOW president. “Our rights do matter.”

Michelle Fadeley, vice president of communications for Illinois NOW, says her organization has seen an “enormous uptick” in the number “who want to make it happen.”

For Fadeley, the issue includes a personal side note. Her mother was pregnant — with Michelle — when she herself marched for the ERA 33 years ago. “It’s really past due,” Fadeley says.

The enormously successful women’s marches this winter and the public outcry that helped save Obamacare show voters can successfully get lawmakers’ attention.

Dauray says voters need to let Illinois legislators – especially members of the House – know they want the ERA ratified. And that they’ll be watching how their legislators vote.

On April 25, women will march in Springfield for several progressive issues, including the ERA. For information about the march, including transportation, go to

And that supposed “deadline”? What became the 27th amendment was passed by Congress in 1789 and not ratified until 203 years later, in 1992.

Don’t let Illinois make women wait that long for equality.


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