Credit: George Danby

If women want to be treated with respect and Americans want women to be safe from sexual violence and free from sexual harassment, we have a lot of work to do.

In the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, we heard a story not uncommon in our culture: a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted, but too terrified to report the event. At the root of that culture is an unequal system of justice. And supporting that justice system is an 18th-century constitution, written by and intended for white men.

Nowhere in our Constitution are the rights of women and girls protected from discrimination due to their gender. Our Constitution should support the values that Americans aspire to today, not those of two centuries ago. When the Constitution falls behind the times, we amend it. Now is the time for an Equal Rights Amendment that extends equal protection under the law to women.

It states simply: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Maine was one of the 35 states that ratified this Amendment in the 1970s. However, to become law the amendment needed to be ratified by three additional states. Now, with two recent state ratifications, we are only one state away from full ratification.

The U.S. Constitution provides protection against discrimination by race, religion, national origin and even gives us the right to carry a gun. It does not protect a person from discrimination based on sex. The victims are mostly women and girls. The #MeToo movement is a stark reminder that sex discrimination is widespread and destructive.

[Opinion: The Equal Rights Amendment would correct a glaring omission in our Constitution]

The Kavanaugh hearings have also shown how politically charged the process of selecting a Supreme Court justice has become. Political ideology has divided the court on most issues and has politicized the issue of sex discrimination. If sex-based assault were treated more seriously, the Senate would not have dragged its feet in ordering a thorough investigation of the assault allegations against Kavanaugh.

One reason sexual assault is not treated seriously is that laws governing sex-based violence are not as effective as they should be. They are patched together on a state-by-state basis, inconsistent and incomplete. Federal statutes like parts of the Violence against Women Act have been ruled to have an inadequate constitutional basis. This would change with an Equal Rights Amendment. The importance of this amendment cannot be overstated.

Imagine a culture in which women and men doing the same work would be paid the same, based on their merits and not on their gender. Imagine paying fairly for equal access to medical care, regardless of one’s gender (the Affordable Care Act prohibited in the individual health insurance market “ gender rating,” where women are charged higher insurance premiums than men). Imagine a culture that considers domestic violence, sexual assault and child prostitution as violations of basic human rights, protecting victims with the full force of the law.

Although most Americans believe that women and men should be treated equally by the law, our courts fall far behind in upholding this principle. When the Constitution lags behind the culture in the country it serves, the people must change it. That is what the amendment process was intended for.

Our Constitution has been amended 27 times in the past 230 years. The 27th Amendment prohibited Congress from raising salaries mid-term. Surely a future 28th Amendment granting equal justice to women has greater importance than those pay raises.

Outrage gathering force after generations of abuse and silence is loud and clear. Legal equality is at the bedrock of the struggle. That should be our focus. That is where our despair, anger and energy can be directed. Women will continue to be second-class citizens until they become fully equal persons under the law. The Equal Rights Amendment is the straight path to that equality.

Nancy Murdock is a founding member of Equal Rights Maine. She lives in Brooklin.

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