Equal Rights Amendment supporters show up at the Minnesota Capitol every year dressed in their signature green, donning “ERA YES” logo buttons that date back to the 1970s and carrying signs some have hung onto for years.
And every year they fail to win support for a change to the Minnesota Constitution that says equal rights cannot be denied on account of sex.
The national battle that has dragged on for decades is grabbing public attention again with 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and Hulu’s “Mrs. America” series reacquainting us with ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly.
While Curious Minnesota typically pursues readers questions, this time it was some Star Tribune reporters asking: What is the status of the ERA in our state?
Neither the U.S. nor the Minnesota Constitutions have amendments addressing gender equality. ERA supporters are continuing to push for change at the state and federal levels, but they face legal and ideological opposition.
“This is the unfinished business of the suffragists,” said former state Rep. Betty Folliard, who founded the group ERA Minnesota. “We are the modern suffragists. The torch bearers. We are the ones who are taking the message that began with a few and working it until we get the job done.”
Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said he first proposed an equal rights amendment to the Minnesota Constitution in the 1990s, figuring, “In the absence of any movement on the federal level, states should start doing it on their own.” He regrets that Democrats didn’t pass it when they controlled the House and Senate, but said there wasn’t political interest then and it has since become increasingly politicized.
In 2019, ERA supporters saw the bill progress further than ever before, clearing the DFL-led Minnesota House, 72-55. The Republican-controlled Senate did not give the bill a hearing.
GOP legislators raised concerns during the House debate about the ERA expanding abortion rights. They also disagreed with using the word “gender” instead of “sex” in the amendment. That wording change to encompass more identities was “too inclusive” for some of her GOP colleagues, said bill sponsor Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton.
In the Senate, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, proposed a measure this year with the original phrasing of “sex.” She said COVID-19 got in the way of the bill and she plans to push for it next year. Kunesh-Podein expressed doubt that a GOP-led Senate would back the bill and said its success depends on the 2020 election that will determine the balance of power in the two chambers.
The Legislature would not have the final say on the amendment. If lawmakers pass the change, it would go to voters as a ballot measure.
The U.S. House and Senate passed the ERA in 1972 with the requisite two-thirds votes, nearly 50 years after the amendment was first proposed. Next, the legislatures in three-quarters — or 38 — states had to ratify it.
Minnesota was the 26th state to ratify the federal amendment in 1973. But the ERA fell short of getting the necessary support of 38 states before an 1982 expiration date. Shortly after that, advocates began calling on Congress to remove the deadline. Some state lawmakers in Minnesota want to pass a resolution in support of lifting the deadline. The state has yet to pass that.
Meanwhile, other states have continued to ratify the measure. Virginia became the key 38th state in January.
Even if Congress removed the deadline, an action that would likely prompt legal challenges, the ERA could face other hurdles. Five states that originally passed the amendment later rescinded their support. Whether their original votes would count toward ratification remains unclear.
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