Two Truths and a Lie: The Equal Rights Amendment

Later this week is the anniversary of the congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.” Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about the Equal Rights Amendment?

A. Women’s natural rights and basic legal equality are already protected in the U.S.
B. The ERA will not protect women against the predatory men being exposed by #MeToo or ensure that they are paid equally for the same work.
C. The ERA is already part of the Constitution because it has received ⅔ votes in both Houses of Congress and 38 states have ratified the amendment.

Let’s take these statements one at a time:

A. TRUTH! The Constitution protects women’s rights to free speech, religious liberty, jury trial, and many other crucial rights. The 19th Amendment ensured that all women of age would have the right to vote and the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment protects women from being treated differently under the law solely on the basis of sex. Discrimination against women based on sex is also barred by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and by other federal and state laws. 

However, the Constitution, as currently interpreted, does allow for some common sense distinctions. For example, only men are required to sign up for the draft, and government facilities such as public school restrooms and prisons are still allowed to be single-sex. These “discriminations,” already controversial as trans-identified males encroach on women’s teams and locker rooms, could be jeopardized by some readings of the ERA, which leaves extraordinarily broad language for judges to interpret instead of leaving these thorny social issues to the voters (the majority of whom are women).

B. TRUTH! Proponents of the ERA say that it only enshrines the basic legal equality that well over 90% of both women and men say they support, and at the same time, that it will solve the societal problems exposed by #MeToo and erase the so-called pay gap between men and women. But the ERA will not affect criminal laws against harassment and assault, which are already in place in all 50 states. Similarly, sex discrimination in the workplace has been barred by federal law since 1963. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the pay gap is not primarily the result of discrimination against women, but instead, the natural result of the different choices women make on average about balancing work and family.  

C. LIE! Thirty-five state ERA ratifications took place in the 1970s before a long-passed deadline from Congress, while three (Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia) have taken place since 2016. There are serious legal issues involved in counting all of these ratifications together when they took place over such a long period, especially when the language of the ERA will be interpreted radically differently today than it was in 1978. Furthermore, four of the original states have rescinded their ratifications of the ERA, and one attached a sunset clause to its original ratification.

While the ERA did pass both houses of Congress with the required supermajority in the 1970s, Congress added a seven-year deadline, which was then (potentially improperly) extended through the early 1980s. The House has “dissolved” that deadline by a mere majority vote, while the Senate has not done so. 

While the Supreme Court has left the exact parameters for ratification to Congress as a political question, it has also ruled that they need to be “reasonably contemporaneous” and part of a single act, in order to uphold the purpose of the amendment process in showing overwhelming popular support. 

Read more about the ERA and its potential consequences here.