I walked into the Michael A. Bilandic Building on Monday and apparently tripped and fell into the Hot Tub Time Machine, because next thing I knew I was listening to a debate over the Equal Rights Amendment right where we left off in 1982.
“Equal means equal,” said most of the women crowded into an Illinois House committee hearing room, some of them silver-haired veterans of this state’s unsuccessful effort to ratify the ERA — a pivotal failure that helped sink the national effort to enshrine legal protections for women into the U.S. Constitution.
Fewer in number, but not to be deterred, were the opponents, armed with the same familiar arguments — some would say red herrings — that kept Illinois those many decades ago from becoming one of the 38 states needed to approve the amendment.
Invoking the name of their late-standard bearer, Phyllis Schlafly, opponents warned a constitutional amendment barring discrimination on the basis of sex would require women to be drafted into military service (if the draft is ever reinstated), force everyone to switch to unisex bathrooms, allow men to compete on women’s sports teams or do away altogether with athletic competition based on gender differences.
They 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.
But most of all, they argued, the ERA is really just a smokescreen to allow unfettered access to taxpayer-paid abortions.
I’d heard it all before as a young reporter covering the Legislature, but somehow imagined the passage of time would make the notion of equal rights for women a fairly non-controversial topic in this blue state.
Not so, which is a useful reminder that as much as things have changed for the better in society in the interim, plenty has stayed the same.
Still, while I was imagining Hot Tub Time Machine, the opponents could be forgiven for thinking they were in an episode of The Walking Dead, most of them having assumed the ERA was dead and buried long ago.
That indeed seemed to be the case after 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 firm against the proposal.
That’s pretty much where matters stood until some creative minds, possibly looking to harness the energy of the Women’s March and the #METOO movement in a way that could help Democrats in the 2018 elections, resurrected it with a legal theory that the deadline doesn’t apply.
In March, Nevada approved the amendment, which moves the count to 36, as long as you don’t subtract the five states that got cold feet and claimed to later withdraw their approval of the amendment. ERA supporters say states are not allowed to rescind their support for constitutional amendments.
“It’s never too late to protect the rights of the women of America,” Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), sponsor of the constitutional amendment resolution, said to loud applause.
Lang admitted, though, that those legal theories will be challenged in court — if two more states ratify the amendment — before it could become law.
The Illinois Senate easily approved the amendment last month, but getting the required 3/5th majority — or 71 votes — is expected to be more difficult in the House.
Democrats already are angling to blame any failure on Gov. Bruce Rauner for not doing enough to muster Republican support. Rauner said Monday he’s supportive of equal rights for everyone but has no formal role in approving constitutional amendments.
Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), chair of the House Human Services Committee, said she expects to hold a vote in Springfield later this week to move the matter to the full chamber.
Maybe somebody can get the hot tub repaired by then.