27 Jun

Thirty years later, it’s like an entirely new ERA

Last week, the Oregon secretary of state’s office verified that a petition to put an Equal Rights Amendment into the Oregon Constitution had turned in enough signatures to qualify for the ballot this November.

This means this fall’s ballot has already gotten more interesting; you can’t count on the marijuana measure to do all the work of driving voter turnout.

The Oregon ERA, declaring that “State/political subdivision shall not deny or abridge equality of rights on account of sex,” reached the ballot by the efforts of lawyer-lobbyist John DiLorenzo and his wife Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo. Yuxing Zheng of The Oregonian reported that the two supplied about 88 percent of the costs of the effort, or around $403,476 – about the budget of a contested state House race.

Back in the time of the original ERA, the 1970s of eight-track tapes, gas lines and lapels wider than a milk carton, you could pick up a good Oregon legislative seat for maybe $10,000. But that difference isn’t nearly as much as the change in the ERA debate since then.

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – endorsed by the last two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, later joined by Gerald Ford – was passed by the U.S. Senate, 84-8, and the House of Representatives, 354-24.

The amendment was rapidly ratified by 30 state legislatures – Oregon was in the second wave, in 1973, because its legislature didn’t meet in 1972 – and got to 35 states, of the required 38 (three-quarters), before stopping; in fact, stopping dead.

Opponents, led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, warned that the amendment would lead to same-sex marriage, women in combat and unisex bathrooms. Since the ratification deadline, extended once, expired in 1982, equal rights amendments have been largely a state issue; Oregon would join 21 other states that now have one.

As Oregon contemplates its initiative, it’s striking to note how much the conversation has changed since the time of the original debate, when the strongest female presence on television was “Charlie’s Angels.”

As Schlafly warned in her book “Feminist Fantasies,” in what emerged as the most prominent argument against the amendment, “Eminent authorities have stated that ERA would legalize the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and generally implement the gay and lesbian agenda.”

Now, that’s pretty much happening without the ERA. Judges, legislators and even some voters are instituting same-sex marriage state-by-state, and even the politicians who drove state constitutional bans a decade ago are abandoning the fight.

It was a dramatic triumph for Schlafly when she led a wave of supporters into the Illinois state capitol and the legislature voted down ratification. Last year, the Illinois lawmakers became one of the first state legislatures to adopt same-sex marriage.

On the other main anti-ERA argument, Schlafly warned,
“The very idea of women serving in military combat is so unnatural that it almost sounds like a death wish for our species.”

But last year, in a policy-changing statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared the Pentagon was “committed to removing all gender barriers wherever possible and meeting our missions with the best qualified and most capable personnel. I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our warfighting capability.”

The expanded policy reflects a military with more than 200,000 women on active duty, with numbers of them in Iraq and Afghanistan serving on gun crews and air crews. The warning that the ERA might change the role of women in the military would sound different in a Congress that includes Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq.

But if the issues look different from the first time the country debated an Equal Rights Amendment, so do attitudes. An ERA, a statement of opposition to discrimination based on sex, would not be adopted by the current House of Representatives 354-24.

In fact, it wouldn’t be adopted by the current House of Representatives at all.

Which is one reason that it has become a state initiative.

As a state Equal Rights Amendment goes before Oregon voters this November, with same-sex marriage and women in combat vanishing as political issues, opponents can still hold the line against unisex bathrooms.

But they’d better stay away from some of the cooler Portland restaurants.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, June 25, 2014.