Equal Doesn’t Mean Equal Yet: Women’s Equality Day, ERA & The Story of My Life

My friend Carol Jenkins, a board member of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition was updating me over lunch about the current attempt to get the ERA into the U.S. Constitution.

“This is where I came in,” I said.

ERA-march-300x222The renewed effort, founded in 2014, comes almost a century after suffragist leader Alice Paul drafted the ERA in 1923.  The language is simple : “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”

Paul, a founder of the National Woman’s Party, was one of the few suffragist leaders who recognized that getting the right to vote in 1920–the reason we celebrate women’s equality day each August 26 – – was not the end of the fight, but merely one necessary, albeit major, victory on the path to full legal and social equality.

Many suffrage leaders declared victory after the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. They went on to other causes, but Paul realized that in a democracy, no political victory is secure without a vibrant movement to keep fighting forward. “It is incredible to me,” she said, “that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and accustomed policy is not to ignore women.”

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Thank you, Geraldine Ferraro (1935—2011), First Female Major Party VP Candidate

“If we can do this, we can do anything.” –Geraldine Ferraro, accepting the Democratic Party nomination for vice president in 1984

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Geraldine Ferraro’s place in history is assured. The smart mouthed tough talking Queens Congresswoman tapped to be Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate shattered a particularly stubborn glass ceiling. As I mourned her passing following a valiant 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, I found myself watching her acceptance speech again, not with nostalgia but with celebration, appreciation—and a sense of urgency for the next generation of progressive women political leaders to step forward and continue her legacy.

In her speech, Ferraro told her American dream story–Italian immigrant father, widowed mother who worked long hours crocheting beads onto wedding dresses to give her children a better life—with the same rhetorical flourishes beloved by male candidates. But when she followed her opening salvo with a spontaneous “Whoop!” the cameras panned moist eyes of cheering, placard-waving women in the convention crowd.

Her not-so-subliminal message came through loud and clear. Though women had lost the ERA ratification battle just two years prior, our efforts to gain equality for women had won this significant consolation prize: the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.

I was tearing up at home in Phoenix, where I would soon have a chance to meet Ferraro at a packed fundraising event in a friend’s backyard. And so it went all around the country. She Negotiates founder Victoria Pynchon recalled why her tears flowed as she watched the convention from Sacramento CA:

Here I was. A practicing commercial litigator. And there Ferraro was. A Vice-Presidential candidate. It was exhilarating. Women were becoming a central part of the American story. That meant I was a part of it too. I hadn’t dreamed too big as my mother had warned me I had.

Carolyn Maloney, now the U. S. Congresswoman from Manhattan’s 14th district, was “an eager young delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention.” She said of witnessing Ferraro’s nomination, “It was absolutely electrifying. She changed my life and she changed the course of history.”

Done in by her men: The Mondale-Ferraro defeat

The euphoria didn’t last long. Ferraro had the audacity to think she would be treated as a person separate from her husband. She acknowledged later that she had been ill-prepared for the sexist media treatment she would encounter. “The promise of our country is that the rules are fair,” she had opined in her speech. So when the Republicans went after her because her husband hadn’t released his tax returns after she had promised he would, she quipped, “You know those Italian men,” and thought that would take care of it. Instead it unleashed a flood of additional attacks on her qualifications; that threw her onto the defensive for the rest of the campaign.

Many would try to blame her rather than her presidential candidate running mate, the solid statesman but uber-boring Walter Mondale, for Ronald “morning in America” Reagan’s landslide victory that November. While it’s doubtful that anyone could have defeated the personable (and popular despite his reactionary economic and anti-woman social issue positions) incumbent, Mondale clearly wasn’t up to the task.

Not one to give up, Ferraro, later ran for U.S, Senate twice, in 1992 and 1998. She lost both races. She served in the Clinton Administration as ambassador to the U.N.Human Rights Commission. Late in 1998 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Determined to keep working even through chemotherapy treatments, she did business consulting and media commentary, and campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton in 2008. I often saw her at political gatherings but my last encounter with her was at an informal dinner at a friend’s home where her passion for making a difference through the political process came through as strong as ever in the heated conversations about the race that was by that time a shoe-in for Barack Obama.

In this video interview for the New York Times, Ferraro looks back at the ups and downs of her life and what her groundbreaking accomplishments have meant for society.

Coincidentally, the day Ferraro died, a vigorous conversation was occurring on the 9 Ways blog about whether it’s incumbent on women to support women candidates. The consensus was that women have a responsibility to support those female candidates who support policies that advance women and women’s equality.

No question, Ferraro fit that description.

Today, I join millions of Americans in saying, “Thank you, Gerry, for standing in your power and walking with intention toward a better, and someday an unlimited future for women.“

“If we can do this, we can do anything,” just as she said. But here’s the urgency: we will do so only if we women make a conscious, concerted decision to walk through the doors that Geraldine Ferraro’s courageous bid for the vice presidency pushed open for us. That would be the best, most fitting tribute of all.

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