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Guest opinion: 100 years is long enough — Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment

By Donna Kelly - | Sep 28, 2023

The First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls, New York, was filled to the brim. With hope. With promise. And with a sense that history was about to be made. Women spilled out of the building, peering in through windows to hear other women commemorate efforts to encode equal rights for women into the U.S. Constitution. It was July 21, 2023 — 100 years after suffragist Alice Paul first publicly read the Equal Rights Amendment at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention. It was one of the great honors of my life to attend that Centennial Commemoration with six women and men from Utah — the state where the ERA came to languish in the 1970s. Together with 400 others from around the country, we Utahns declared that we WILL finally achieve constitutional equality for all genders.

The Rev. Pat Spearman, a Nevada state senator, called the crowd to action, proclaiming that the fight for equality will never die and that we will win at “done o’clock.” She elaborated: “We don’t have a roadmap, but we are not lost.” Notably, her efforts brought about Nevada’s historic 2017 ratification of the ERA, reviving efforts elsewhere.

The centennial event also featured women like Zoe Nicholson who, in 1982, fasted for 37 days with Sonia Johnson and five other women in an effort to compel the Illinois Legislature to ratify the ERA. Their efforts finally bore fruit in 2018 when Illinois became the 37th state to ratify. In 2020, Virginia became the 38th and last state to ratify it.

Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush proclaimed: “We are one signature away from equality.” That is, the United States archivist, Colleen Shogan, still needs to certify the state ratifications and sign the 28th Amendment into law, an action she has delayed due to missed ratification deadlines and the recension votes of five states. Bush’s House Resolution (HJR25), co-sponsored by Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), addresses those concerns by simply declaring that the constitutional requirements for ratification have already been met, as both houses of Congress passed the amendment in 1972 and 38 states have ratified it. The sponsors’ theory is that, because the original and revised deadlines for ratification were not in the text of the amendment itself, the deadlines are not binding.

Notably, the 2023 crowd was more diverse than in 1923. Women of color could not participate in 1923, but were present in 2023. Young women — “Generation Ratify” — were also present this time, showing that change is slow but sure. This youth-led organization shut down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., during the weekend of the Centennial Commemoration, facing arrest.

Their passion echoes the historical efforts of many others. Johnson and Paul were judged “too radical” in their day but set the example by putting their physical bodies on the line for constitutionally enshrined equal protection. Utah women Lavern Robertson and Minnie Quay were beaten and force-fed in a work house on the Night of Terrors while advocating for women’s right to vote. As Silent Sentinels, they petitioned the president outside the White House for two years, enduring all kinds of weather and personal physical harm to bring about greater equality — they were fearless.

I was overwhelmed with emotion as I stood at the same podium where Paul first read the ERA. I’ll never forget congresswoman Bush at that same podium quoting Dr. King’s famous declaration that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” She then declared to a rousing standing ovation that the arc will bend faster this time around because “We are pulling the arc.” I returned to the gravesite of Susan B. Anthony in Seneca Falls, where I stood openly weeping at the spirit of sacrifice and dedication to equality that I felt in her speech.

The Seneca Falls event was about commemorating all the work that has been done and committing to the work that still must be done. These women, past and present, remind us that we have to push beyond barriers and suggestions that our fight for equal rights is radical or controversial. The efforts from young people leading Generation Ratify, as a partner in the National ERA Coalition, inspired us to remember what is at stake and to be bold in our efforts to move the ERA forward. Nicholson asked those present to reflect on the actions we, as those in attendance, would be willing to take in order to achieve our fundamental equal rights.

We extend the question to you — what will YOU do to put women in the U.S. Constitution? Let us suggest a few simple actions. Pledge your support for a new resolution the convention drafted, letting Congress know that 100 years is long enough to fight for women’s fundamental rights: https://www.sign4era.org/. Join with the Utah ERA Coalition and the Women’s Democratic Club to continue efforts for equality in our state (www.utahera.org). Contact your congressional delegation individually and ask them to support HJR25.

Has it been a long road? Yes. Has it been hard fought? Yes. Will equality prevail? Without any doubt, YES.

Donna Kelly retired after serving for 32 years as a special victims prosecutor and now serves as an attorney for the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic.

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