Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
One hundred years. Women have been waiting and working for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would formally recognize them and extend equal rights under the law since its introduction in 1923.
Fifty years. That's how long it's been since Minnesota ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, just one year after Congress passed the amendment and sent it to states to begin the laborious process of ratification. Optimism ran strong in those days. Ultimately, 35 states would ratify the amendment, which fell three short of the 38 needed within the deadline.
Now here we are, in 2023, still waiting, still working toward that 28th Amendment that would ensure equal constitutional protection, without consideration of gender. But this time, change may finally be coming.
Recently, the push for an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution is again gaining momentum in Congress and the states. Additionally, a separate effort in Minnesota would add an equal rights amendment to the state Constitution.
The resurgence has been sparked, in part, because the U.S. Supreme Court swept aside an earlier interpretation of the Constitution that found women had the right to an abortion. In overturning Roe v. Wade, the court signaled in its Dobbs decision how quickly interpretations of precedent can change based on the court's makeup.
In Minnesota, anger at the decision helped give Democrats control of all three branches of government. With that, Betty Folliard, a former legislator and fierce ERA advocate since its earliest days, saw a fresh opportunity to renew an old fight.
"People knew that after Roe, that we needed stronger, more explicit protections," Folliard told an editorial writer.
Why is an equal rights amendment still necessary? "Because two-thirds of tipped workers and minimum wage workers are women, and there is a serious wage gap," Folliard said. "Two-thirds of seniors below poverty level are women. We are one of only three industrialized countries in the world that still don't offer paid maternity leave. Because fewer than 1% of rapists will ever be adjudicated. Because women fight and die for their country and still don't have equal rights."
Minnesota does have a Human Rights Act in statute, adopted in 1977 and expanded in 1993, that prohibits discrimination because of "race, color, creed, national origin, sex, marital status, disability ... and sexual orientation."
But that falls short of constitutional protection. "We've seen how rights can be easily removed if they're not protected in our foundational document," Folliard said.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than half of U.S. states now have an equal rights provision in their state constitutions or are actively attempting to add one.
Folliard also noted that the proposed Minnesota version "is not your grandma's ERA." The new language is both more explicit and inclusive. It states, "Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied by this state or any of its cities, counties or other political subdivisions on account of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin." Similar language, Folliard said, recently passed in Nevada and will go to voters in New York in November.
If Minnesota's version passes, she said, it could go to voters as a proposed amendment to the state Constitution in 2024.
There is renewed energy in Congress as well. In the Democratically controlled Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants a floor vote this spring. And Sen. Dick Durbin, who heads the Judiciary Committee, recently noted, "It is long past time to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sex in our Constitution. It would send an important and overdue message to women and girls that they are equal under the law." Lawmakers, he said, should on a bipartisan basis repeal the deadline that doomed the last effort "and finally make the Equal Rights Amendment the law of the land."
Folliard said she has high hopes that Minnesota voters soon will get to cast ballots on adding equal rights to the state Constitution, and she's encouraged by movement in Congress.
"The vast majority of Americans believe in equal rights," she said. "All we're saying here is that equal means equal. Equality has no qualifiers. Everyone should have equal treatment under the law. That is something we have yet to experience."