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On the radar: Do Something Useful for the Majority

Do Something Useful for the Majority

The new Congress has been busy, what with scandals in the Justice Department and votes to reign in war spending with some accountability and better training for the troops. Both are good things, and rightly priorities. But both are likely to end with standoffs as they go head-to-head with the White House, no doubt because the 2008 election season is already well underway, and the President is determined not to give Democrats an edge with voters.

But some members of this Congress are already looking ahead to boost the party's stock with the majority of voters – women. They are going beyond non-binding resolutions and bills that won’t get past the President’s veto pen. They are now talking about passing The Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA states that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Recently renamed the Women's Equality Amendment and introduced March 27 by its chief sponsor, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to a standing-room-only news conference, the ERA would grant equal constitutional rights to women -- something we have yet to achieve. A simple concept that had the blessing of both political parties until the Republicans struck it from their platform in 1980, with the Democrats following in 2004.

The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but was not passed and sent to the states for ratification until 1972. Unlike the 27th amendment, ratified after hanging around for 200 years, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed with a time limit of only seven years for approval by the states. In that brief time it was ratified by 35 states, but was stopped three states short by millions of corporate dollars backing Phyllis Schlafly's anti-woman storm troopers, who feared unisex toilets more than they valued freedom from discrimination. (Schlafly always resurfaces at the Republican platform committee hearings leading a band of zealots campaigning for their own constitutional amendment banning abortion. She says Republican women want to ban abortion. A few do. We saw just how few last November, when 100% of anti-abortion ballot initiatives were defeated.)

Much has changed in the 35 years since Congress first passed the ERA. Women have become the majority of the population and of the electorate. Most are now in the work force full time, including nearly three quarters of mothers with children between six and eighteen. Women head one third of all households, and a whopping 61% of single parent families.

While much has changed, little progress has been made. On the average women still make only 76 cents to a man’s dollar, working full-time and year-round. They hold 98% of the low paying "women's" jobs and fewer than 15% of the board seats in major corporations. Three quarters of the elderly in poverty are women. And in every state except Montana, women still pay higher rates than similarly situated men for health, annuity, disability, and auto insurance.

Congress, only 16% female, has stifled the ERA year after year, even though it has been reintroduced in every session since time ran out on
ratification. But now with renewed energy and front-page coverage of
the new ERA push, John Conyers (D-NY) Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, promises fast-track hearings and reporting the amendment to the floor for a vote.

The framers of the Constitution could not have foreseen the modern political posturing, but surely they would cringe at a body that is so willing to soapbox on such sham amendments as gay marriage, yet unwilling to release one that directly affects the well being of 52% of the population.

Nine out of 10 Americans believe that the constitution should make it clear that women and men should have equal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment won't cost taxpayers a dime, and it will benefit not only the women of America but also the men, in this and all generations to come. That would be a real legacy for the new Congress.

Martha Burk is the Money editor for Ms., and Director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.