Your Turn: ERA's unfinished business 

When our forefathers broke from the tyranny in Great Britain, they left nothing to chance. They put it in writing.

In unified thought, spirit and action, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 white male landowners representing the 13 colonies. Hardly reflective of America today, it formally challenged the notion of the "divine right of kings" and guaranteed wealthy men equal rights.

Ironically, God-given rights were customarily denied to women. Considered as property, they were barred from decisions that would impact their social status indefinitely.

Commemorating the spirit of proclaimed freedom, the Declaration of Independence provides the rationale through which the United States Constitution is interpreted. Therefore, the Supreme Court renders its judgments based on a legal precedent of equality established 233 years ago — among men only!

With only one female Supreme Court justice and one quarter of judges who are women in state courts, the odds are not in our favor. Furthermore, without the explicit wording and intention of women's rights documented in the principles of our government, women have continued to remain second-class citizens, and will until we unite and declare otherwise.

Justice Antonin Scalia affirms this stark reality: "When a practice not explicitly prohibited by the text of the Bill of Rights bears the endorsement of a long tradition of open, widespread and unchallenged use, that dates back to the beginning of the Republic, we have no proper basis for striking it down."

There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution that grant critical civil and political rights. The monumental impact of these revolutionary revisions has included men of all races, religions and national origins. Steadily our cultural landscape transformed from horrific human-rights violations to electing the first Catholic and African American male presidents. Those have been stunning triumphs, and yet our moral compass must not ignore the double standard that remains unaddressed — gender discrimination.

Without a uniform guarantee of equality across 50 states, there is no assurance of women's progress, now or in the future. The stopgap of laws arbitrarily sprinkled throughout the states, subjectively interpreted by courts and overturned by a single vote, has failed us. Unwise "investors" bank on the security and protection of state laws assuming this measure is sufficient. They build castles made of sand, but with the changing tides in the legislatures, rights can be swept away without a trace. Ask Lilly Ledbetter, who lost her legal battle for fair pay against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., until a new law prevailed.

Verbal, sexual and physical assaults have become commonplace; advertising exploits our bodies and limits our self-concept; wage disparity and insufficient family support persist in employment; and caregivers are not yet eligible for Social Security.

The omission of women in the U.S. Constitution has had far-reaching consequences for far too long. The time to take action is now.

The Equal Rights Amendment updates America's original social contract. It calls upon the U.S. government to modernize its existing structures, laws and policies to reflect the progress and contributions of the other half of its taxpaying citizens.

Just three more states are needed to ratify the ERA as the 28th Amendment. Colorado ratified the amendment almost immediately after the Senate's 1972 approval. Now Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida (2009) and Virginia (2010) are attempting to officially declare men and women equal stakeholders in America's future. With an economy to recover, international relations to mend and corruption to end, all hands must be joined in this effort.

ERA simply states: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

It is high time our government steps up to the plate and declares gender discrimination unconstitutional as it has nobly done with race. With a uniform guarantee of equality upheld in all 50 states, women's progress at home, at work and in their communities will be measured and protected by the full extent of the law after more than 200 years.

ERA invests in every woman's social progress — offering her the dignity and respect she is entitled to as a citizen of this democracy and an individual of humanity.

Carolyn Cook is the Washington, D.C., representative for the ERA Campaign Network and member of National Council of Women's Organization's ERA Taskforce.


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