Dawn of an ERA? State House passes Equal Rights Amendment — 95 years later

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Equal Rights Amendment march in Chicago in 1978. Sun-Times file photo.

SPRINGFIELD—The Illinois House made history on Wednesday, allowing for the state to become the 37th in the country to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment designed to protect Americans against discrimination based on their sex.

Nearly a century after the amendment was drafted, the Illinois House voted 72-45 to ratify it following more than two hours of debate. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan stood behind the speaker’s podium in the House chambers to watch the historic vote. The Illinois Senate voted to approve it in April.

While the vote may be symbolic — the country needs one more state to ratify the amendment — the state’s passage creates a window of opportunity for the embattled constitutional amendment. The state is where the efforts seized in 1982. Only 35 of the necessary 38 states ratified the amendment before the 1979 deadline set by Congress. The deadline was extended to 1982, but that made no difference as Illinois and other states remained firmly against the proposal.

After the state Senate approved the ERA in April, Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang and Republican state Rep. Steven Andersson, R-Geneva, took time to try to muster the bipartisan 71 votes needed to approve the constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers shared impassioned personal stories of their upbringings, their daughters and their lives in the military. Some argued it was moot to push for an amendment that was created in the early 20th century.

The amendment declares that equality of rights will not be denied by the U.S. or any state on account of sex. It was originally introduced in Congress in 1923 and was sent to the states for ratification 46 years ago.

Opponents feared it could mean unisex bathrooms, allowing men to compete on women’s sports teams or doing away with athletic competition based on gender differences. They’ve also argued women already have all the protections they need under the law and that this proposed change to the constitution could only hurt them, rather than help women achieve pay equity.

Lang called the vote a historic moment for Illinois, and implored lawmakers to support the amendment that has the potential of impacting the entire country.

“The only question that needs to be asked is, is the Illinois House of Representatives for or against adding 161 million American citizens to the United States Constitution where they absolutely belong?” Lang said. “A no vote for whatever reason you have is a vote against the rights of women in the United States of America.”

Lang, too, told those against it to “spare the hair on fire routine” about what the amendment will do.

“It’s going to be nothing to hurt the fabric of America because all it says is give women the same rights men have in the United States of America,” Lang said. “If you’re a representative against that, I don’t know why you’re here defending and protecting the people that you represent.”

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State Rep. Jeanne Ives — who was narrowly defeated by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the March primary — argued that women are already guaranteed protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ives, R-Wheaton, said it’s up to men to stop domestic abuse, trafficking, discrimination in the workplaces and sexual harassment.

“We have the rules on the books. What we need is great men to stand up and protect women,” Ives said. “And this body knows it.”

The fireworks began on Wednesday night during a lengthy debate on the House floor, just as the Illinois Senate was poised to approve a budget.

Opponents have argued the ERA is really just a smokescreen to allow unfettered access to taxpayer-funded abortions. And state Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, argued that’s the real reason behind the amendment.

The ERA was drafted by Alice Paul, a lawyer, in 1923, who also had a heavy hand in helping to get the 19th Amendment ratified. But she died before seeing it passed.

Alice Paul in 1917 and in the 1970s. Sun-Times archives.

Alice Paul in 1917 and in the 1970s. Sun-Times archives.

Breen said supporters of the ERA have “twisted her [Paul’s] language into a mechanism for abortion — something that Ms. Paul never would have stood for. ”

Rep. Sue Scherer said she’s a mother of three daughters and a grandmother to four granddaughters. Scherer, D-Decatur, said she listened to many several Catholic, pro-life friends and family.

“Every time I asked I got the same answer. They said it’s time to quit using pro-life as an excuse to suppress women,” Scherer said. “I dream of a day when all people are treated equally. And I hope that today is that day.”

Not all Republicans opposed the amendment. State Rep. Christine Winger, R-Bloomingdale, said she’s pro-life but said she would support it for her daughter.

She said she voted yes “for her and for others to know the state of Illinois believes that she should have the same opportunities as men.”

And state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said he’s pro-life and will continue to be pro-life. He said he’s been taught that all people are made in the image of God with dignity and rights.

“This includes both men and women. If you believe that, then I can find no reason why the United States Constitution shouldn’t reflect the same,” Brady said.

The road to ratification is not over, even if 38 states approve it. It will likely meet a court challenge. Nevada became the 36th state to approve the amendment earlier this year. With Illinois, that means only one more is needed. But five of the original 35 later claimed to withdraw their support — a change ERA supporters insist is not allowed.

And Congress would have to extend the original deadline needed to ratify.

The issue is hugely political, and Rauner was careful about voicing support for the amendment.

He has no official role in the ratification. The amendment does not require his signature.

For the governor, declaring himself in favor of the amendment would risk further alienating the conservative wing of the Republican Party that he is trying to win back after a divisive primary election against Ives.

And Democrats clearly knew that bringing up the ERA just months ahead of the November election would put Rauner in a tough spot.

Conservative Republicans argue the ERA would open the way for government-paid abortions and co-ed prisons, which ERA supporters deny.

But openly opposing the ERA could hurt Rauner’s chances with women voters, particularly the suburban independent women who provided an important part of his winning coalition in 2014.

Rauner’s Democratic rival, J.B. Pritzker, issued a statement applauding legislators for passing the amendment — and taking a shot at Rauner.

“I’ve been a staunch advocate for women’s rights my whole life, and I’m proud to see a bipartisan group of leaders take this critical step to enshrine women’s equality in our Constitution,” the Democrat said. “Today, after over 40 years of waiting, Illinois was put on the right side of history.

“But let’s be clear: while women and advocates across this state asked Bruce Rauner to support the ERA, their requests were met with a deafening silence. Bruce Rauner failed Illinois women in this fight.”

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