It’s been said (and sometimes attributed to Mark Twain) that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
I’ve been hearing a lot of rhyming about the Equal Rights Amendment lately — so much so that I’d invite Lin-Manuel Miranda to choose the long quest for a U.S. constitutional guarantee of gender equality under the law as the topic for his next musical.
The Minnesota number in the show could feature Myrtle Cain and Joan Growe. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
While playing Minnesota historian recently, I looked at the 1973 legislative session. It was the year in which DFLers took control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time. Now that they were finally in “the room where it happens,” those DFLers knew that “history had its eyes on them” and chose their first moves with great care. (OK, I’ll lay off the “Hamilton” references — other than to report that the show’s soundtrack makes a nice accompaniment to dives into the Legislative Reference Library’s archives.)
The newly in-charge DFLers quickly took up ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. It had been sent by Congress to the states in 1972, a year in which the Minnesota Legislature did not meet. On Feb. 8, 1973, I learned, Minnesota became the 26th state on the ratification list, with 12 states to go before reaching the requisite 38 (three-quarters of the states) for the amendment’s adoption.
Hence, I thought I’d fallen into a time warp when this headline appeared in this newspaper nine days ago: “After nearly a century, the Equal Rights Amendment might finally pass.” The story reported that Virginia has just given Democrats control of state government for the first time in the modern era. What are that state’s new legislature’s leaders vowing to take up “immediately” in January? The good ol’ ERA.
Do you detect an every-half-century-or-so pattern here?
They were already detecting one in 1973. Sitting in the state Senate gallery in February 1973 was former state Rep. Myrtle Cain of Minneapolis. Cain was one of four women elected to the Legislature in the first election in which women were eligible to run, 1922. The next year, she introduced an Equal Rights Amendment bill in the state House. The ERA was being introduced in Congress and elsewhere that year in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y., that launched the 72-year crusade to give American women the right to vote.
Cain’s persistence and those long timelines were acknowledged during the state Senate floor debate. State Sen. Allan Spear, a bona fide historian and a future Senate president, scolded those who argued that the nation wasn’t ready for gender equality.
“I dare you to look Myrtle Cain in the eye and tell her we haven’t had enough time to study it,” Spear said.
Cain died in 1980 as hope was fading that the ERA push of the 1970s would bear fruit. Congress had set an arbitrary and constitutionally dubious deadline for ratification, June 30, 1982. That day came and went with the amendment three states short of the mark.
The ERA went dormant, but it didn’t die. Joan Growe didn’t let it drop. The ERA had been the topic of her first speech on the House floor in 1973 as a freshman legislator representing Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. She had been one of six women — a record number — elected in 1972.
When Growe announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate 11 years later, her biggest applause line was her call for an Equal Rights Amendment. Her Republican opponent, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, wanted the amendment altered to specify that it could not be used as justification for keeping abortion legal. A poll three months before the 1984 election showed that 70% of Minnesotans were with Growe on the ERA. But she lost to Boschwitz by a 16-percentage-point margin.
Growe retired in 1998 as Minnesota’s 24-year secretary of state, all the while talking about women’s equality. Last week, she cheered news that, on a party-line vote, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to strike the old 1982 deadline from law. Eliminate that deadline, and if Virginia’s Democrats deliver on their promise, the ERA will become the law of the land. Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment in 2017; Illinois followed suit in 2018.
“This could be the time — though I almost hate to say it because we’ve been disappointed so many times before,” said Growe, now 84. She said watching the goal she strived toward almost a half-century ago coming back into view generates mixed feelings — probably not unlike what Cain experienced in 1973. “You’re thrilled that it might finally come to fruition,” Growe said. “But you think, why on Earth did it take so long?”
History has made irrelevant many of the arguments anti-feminists mounted to defeat the ERA 50 years ago. Women in combat roles in the military? That happened without the ERA. So did unisex bathrooms and same-sex marriage.
Abortion is the issue that has tripped up recent efforts at the Legislature to put a state constitutional ERA before Minnesota’s voters. But 46 years after Roe v. Wade, it’s hard to argue that the ERA would serve as a crucial legal buttress for reproductive rights. The constitution’s implicit right to privacy has shown itself sufficient to keep abortion legal since 1973. (Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision was issued in Washington just hours before Growe’s ERA speech on the state House floor.)
But the case Growe made that day for the amendment remains relevant. Her theme was employment. Women are in the workforce to stay, she argued, and they are assets to the state’s prosperity. For most women, employment is not optional, she added. But absent a constitutional guarantee of equality, gender bias is too often tolerated in the workplace, diminishing female workers’ potential. That bias affects pay, promotion, disability benefits, pregnancy and parenting leave policies, and remedies for sexual harassment.
“We must encourage those women who wish to equip themselves to work outside the home to do so,” Growe said that day. The baby boomer generation was coming into the workforce then, and Minnesota needed their talents — all of them, male and female.
Today the big millennial generation has moved into the workforce in a state that is facing a chronic worker shortage. Minnesota enterprises need the talents of that generation — all of them. Millennial energy is fueling ERA Minnesota, an advocacy organization founded in 2014 that’s growing rapidly.
Timelines are protracted in the quest for gender equality for a reason that all seekers of a more democratic and egalitarian society can appreciate. In every society, attempts to convince those with power to share it are almost always met with stiff resistance.
The century-old ERA fight was never really about bathrooms or marriage or even abortion. It’s been about power. If the ERA’s time has finally come, it will be because those who seek it have already amassed so much power that they can no longer be denied.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at email@example.com. Sturdevant and Growe are collaborating on a book that’s scheduled for release next fall.