November 23, 2017
Opinion Latest News | Poll Questions | Charlie Rose | North Korea | Sexual Harassment

My great-grandmother fought for women’s equal rights. I’m still working on her dream

By Posie Cowan, Special to the BDN
Photo courtesy of Posie Cowan | BDN
Photo courtesy of Posie Cowan | BDN
Posie Cowan'’s great-grandmother Sophie Meredith is pictured to the far left in this 1915 photo, which was taken the day she established the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party. Cowan, of Blue Hill, has continued her great-grandmother's efforts in her support for an Equal Rights Amendment.

Did you know that 80 percent of Americans do not know that the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified by the required 38 states in the 1980s? As a result, it never became a constitutional amendment, which means women in the U.S. are not protected from discrimination on the basis of sex.

There have been some laws passed to address issues like equal pay and pregnancy discrimination, but businesses have found loopholes in them. In addition, these laws could be rolled back or revoked at any time by a simple majority in Congress.

Women still only make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Why aren’t there more women and men lobbying for an Equal Rights Amendment since most Americans support an Equal Rights Amendment? It would increase joint income for families, and single women would also benefit.

Getting an Equal Rights Amendment passed and ratified is not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue. It is a family issue and a human rights issue for Americans. Will we let a small vocal minority, made up of some businesses and some religious groups, prevent women from having equal rights even though 139 countries have done it?

My great-grandmother and all the women, who fought so hard over a 72-year period (1848-1920) to get the vote for women would be shocked to learn that, almost 100 years later, women are still not guaranteed equal rights in the U.S. This is ironic because the United States is a global leader for women’s rights, but it does not have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for American women.

There are 139 countries that have sex equality provisions in their constitutions or prohibitions on discrimination based on sex. The passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment would make it clear that “sex equality is a fundamental human right in the United States.” Right now that is not true.

After women won the vote in 1920, Alice Paul, a suffragist leader, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment and introduced it at her political party’s convention in 1923 in Seneca Falls, New York. My great-grandmother was one of the women who seconded her proposal. The revised version is “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Paul knew that women needed all rights to be guaranteed in the Constitution, not just voting rights.

She said, “ We (women) shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of the our government.”

Incredibly the ERA amendment has been introduced in Congress every year since then and still has not been ratified by the required 38 states.

Shockingly Congress has not voted on it in the last 30 years, although polls show that at least 90 percent of Americans support it. Twenty-three states have already passed their own Equal Rights Amendment, which shows how strong and widespread the support is. However, the states’ laws are not uniform, so a federal amendment is needed. Maine does not have its own Equal Rights Amendment.

The ERA did not get enough states to ratify it in the 1980s because businesses and insurance companies opposed it. It would have decreased their profits because they would be required to treat women equally in wages, hiring, pensions and health care. There was also strong opposition based on the fear of gay rights, women getting drafted, and women having to use unisex bathrooms. Another fear was that child support and alimony would be decreased. Thirty-five years later these fears are non-issues for most people.

However, today there continues to be a very active but small group that opposes the ERA. Some businesses continue to value money over equal rights, and the fundamentalists and religious groups want to have the ability to assert their values on others.

The anti-ERA group continues to use fear by misrepresenting existing laws and court decisions at both state levels and federal levels. They claim that the Equal Rights Amendment would allow abortion on demand. The reality is that the issue of reproductive rights is in the process of being reviewed by the courts. Ultimately it will be decided by the Supreme Court.

It would be a mistake not to support the ERA because of this single issue. Do Americans want to prevent women from getting equal wages, so that family incomes would increase? Do Americans want to have some women and children continue to be harmed and in many cases murdered? This tragedy is often caused by domestic violence laws not being enforced consistently. Do Americans want women to be discriminated against because they are pregnant?

Today there are two different equal rights bills in the Senate and in the House.

The wording of the newest amendment has the following sentence that precedes the original one: “Women shall have equal rights in the United States and in every place subject to it.”

In 1927, the year before she died, my great-grandmother wrote the annual report for the Virginia branch of the National Woman’s Party. She urged her members to continue to fight hard for what she called “the freedom of women.” She was referring to the fact that women needed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that they have equal rights in all areas, including freedom in law, freedom in medicine, and freedom in business.

Today, almost 100 years later, we are still urging Americans to fight hard for an Equal Rights Amendment. If we are successful, we can be a legitimate global leader in equal rights for women. Following my great-grandmother’s footsteps, I have joined the growing momentum both at the national and state level to get the ERA passed.

I hope my great-granddaughter won’t have to fight this same battle.

Posie Cowan is a resident of Brooksville. She began giving presentations and seminars about women’s rights and women activists after she discovered her great grandmother’s suffrage banners in 2004. For more information about the two different strategies to get the ERA passed, visit www.eracoalition.org and www.equalrightsamendment.org. Another resource is the book “Equal Means Equal” by Jessica Neuwirth, who founded the ERA Coalition, and from which the statistics in this piece are drawn.


Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like