Courageous Leadership and the Equal Rights Amendment

Today, March 22, is the anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s passage in 1972 of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a constitutional amendment that would–IF it had been ratified by 3/4 of the states by its ten-year deadline in 1982– have ensured equal rights could not be denied on the basis of gender.

Let me tell you a story about leadership, persistence, and courage.

The original ERA, first introduced in Congress in 1923, was written by Alice Paul, a women’s rights activist Alice Paul toasting the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to votewho was instrumental in the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment, which guaranteed women’s right to vote. Paul also started the National Women’s Party, believing that otherwise women’s concerns would never be taken seriously by politicians.

The ERA has been re-introduced in nearly every session of Congress since then. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? We don’t hear too much about it, bu it’s still very much alive and with the election of Barack Obama there’s a resurging movement to restart the ratification process and get the three additional states needed to give women equal rights in the Constitution that didn’t even consider them citizens when it was written.

The ERA language is simple:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Doesn’t sound very radical now, does it? And that’s precisely my point. Though Paul’s dream of an ERA didn’t pass in her lifetime–she died in 1977–and might not pass in mine, her courageous leadership to initiate this drive for full legal equality for women did foment many advances in employment, sports (Title IX), educational opportunities, political office, and so much more. Could Paul have envisioned Hilary Clinton’s race for president? Or that we have now had three female secretaries of state in a row?

In fact, many people these days will tell you that women’s equal rights are so much a part of the culture that passage of the ERA is moot. My bet is that the ERA will pass within the next decade not because it is still so needed, but because its principles have become so generally accepted by the American public.

The Courageous Leadership lesson is that no effort is without worth and result. As the song says, “You don’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you get what you need.”

Alice Paul’s life illustrates brilliantly that one person taking action can make an enormous difference. Her leadership legacy lives on, vibrant and bearing witness to the significance of her life. It should inspire others who struggle for social justice to risk taking the leadership for what they believe.

Alice Paul’s home in Washington D.C. has been the headquarters of the National Women’s Party for decades and also the Sewell-Belmont House and Museum, the only museum in the nation’s capitol that focuses on women’s struggle for full equality

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” Alice Paul