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Still Waiting for US Constitutional Equality?


United States Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feb. 28, 2023, on her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, the first such hearing on the matter since 1984. The essayist, right, a former Swedish foreign minister who attended the debate, writes, “How is it possible that equal rights are not yet guaranteed by the Constitution?”

Recently, I attended a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. It is the first such hearing in the United States Senate since 1984, and this year marks the 100th anniversary since the ERA was introduced in Congress. As a Swedish citizen, I was taken aback by the charged atmosphere and the opposition expressed to such a fundamental human right, to be free of discrimination based on sex. Honestly, I believe that most people — like me — would have assumed that this right was already in the US Constitution as it is in most constitutions around the world.

My country, Sweden, is known for its commitment to gender equality, and we have always looked to the US for leadership on issues related to democracy and human rights. I was visiting the country as a fellow in residence at the Roosevelt House, part of Hunter College, in New York City, an inspiring place where I was surrounded by photos and memories of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration begins with the idea that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

So how can I reconcile the vision I have of this great country with the debate I heard in the Senate? How is it possible that equal rights are not yet guaranteed by the Constitution? One argument I heard in favor of the ERA is that women should no longer be considered “lesser” citizens as they were when the Constitution was written, excluding them. An impressive Black college student, Thursday Williams, reminded us at the hearing that without the amendment of the Constitution, she would be considered property had the Constitution not been designed to evolve with the times.

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I was shocked to hear some senators talking about the evils that might come with this fundamental protection from discrimination on the basis of sex. They seem so afraid of how the word “sex” might be interpreted that they lose sight of the purpose of this amendment, which is to establish a normative principle at the highest level of the law. This is how it is seen in most countries, and many US states have an equal rights provision in their own constitutions, so this normative standard is hardly new. Nor should it be frightening. It is simply the guiding principle that will be interpreted and implemented by courts and legislatures.

I heard opponents say that the ERA is not needed. While progress has been made in the US and worldwide, the Senate itself reflects that this progress — more women in the Senate than ever before — still remains at 25 percent.

There was much discussion about the procedure and the seven-year time limit that was written in the preamble of the amendment when it was passed by Congress in 1972. It had been extended, and now the question seems to be whether it can be removed. The constitutional legal scholar Kathleen Sullivan testified convincingly that Congress had the power to remove this time limit. To me, it is very strange that such a fundamental constitutional provision would have a time limit, and it was noted that the amendment giving women the right to vote had no such limit.

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From Sweden and other countries, we have watched the political debate in the US become more and more polarized. It was noted at the hearing several times that the Equal Rights Amendment has historically been a bipartisan effort, even recently in the last states that have voted to ratify it. So I was very heartened to hear the Republican senator of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, talk about her consistent commitment to the ERA. She is a co-sponsor with Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) of the current bill to remove the time limit on the ERA. Her words gave me hope that the voice of reason might prevail and that bipartisanship might be restored, at least on this right.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied  by the United States or any State on account of sex”:  These 24 words of the ERA are so simple and seem so uncontroversial. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who eloquently chaired the hearing, called the principle of equal justice under the law as “fundamental to who we are as a nation.” Most Americans, and most of the world, think that these words are already in the US Constitution. Maybe it is because they should be.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the ERA?

Margot Wallström, a former foreign minister of Sweden, is chair of the Women’s Forum for Afghanistan.


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Still Waiting for US Constitutional Equality?
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Seher Alp
Seher Alp
1 year ago

I feel Margot Wallström’s disappointment. I felt the same way as a newcomer to US in 2005, when I saw all the inequalities and inequities. I always dreamed to live in US, since I was a little kid for the love of democracy, freedom and human rights. I came to see that women rights aren’t as much as human rights. This beautiful country should live up to it’s fame and have women rights constitutionally protected. This won’t seem to happen until women repped 51 percent.
Thank you for this great article on such an important matter in Women’s History Month.

Jean Sweeney
1 year ago

I believe that the Biden Administration threw the Afghan women under the bus when he handed over their rights to the Taliban and he threw the United States women under the bus when he handed over their rights to the Knights of Malta by refusing to follow the law and shepherd through the Executive Branch the publication of an updated Constitution with the 28th Amendment. Note the Catholic Church does not allow women to even speak from the altar regarding the sacred word. It does not want women at the table discussing the moral code of taking life with great restraint whether that involves military, policing, border patrol, pollution, poverty, advanced age, in vitro, pregnancy … Women are to be relegated to second class status and silenced.

1 year ago

It is not surprising given that the US culture, or context as a society, doesn’t truly seem to embrace or reflect equal rights.

Hmm, think Animal Farm rather than the Golden Rule ????

Anne Davies
Anne Davies
1 year ago

This is such a powerful piece I think you should send it to the New York Times. They will surely print it in their national and international press.

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