Many Americans think men and women are already equal under the law. But these 24 simple words have been kicking around for 169 years without being ratified as an amendment to the Constitution:
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Nearly all other Constitutions have incorporated words like this. Only the United States is lacking an Equal Rights Amendment. “Women were left out of the Constitution more than 200 years ago. Almost 100 years ago, just after women finally got the right to vote, the ERA was introduced by Alice Paul to give women all other equal rights. We are way behind the rest of the world, where most countries have constitutional guarantees of sex equality,” says Jessica Neuwirth, president of the ERA Coalition. “It’s time to put women in the Constitution once and for all.” As we watch women’s rights being rolled back again and again we realize that without a place in the Constitution we will never be able to safeguard the gains we make.
In the 1930s, when my mother was an art student at the National Academy of Design, the president of the academy told her that though she was the best artist in her class she would not win the Prix de Rome. When she asked why, he said, “Because you’ll have babies and waste your talent.” I first heard this depressing tale when I was only 9—which perhaps explains my passionate life-long feminism. I understood at a very young age that it was my responsibility to make the world better for women.
I went to a wonderful women’s college—Barnard—where women’s excellence was nurtured and celebrated, but as soon as I got to graduate school across the street I realized that the wider world was not the same. For the first time in my life I experienced the condescension that all my fellowships and poetry awards could not erase. As I matured as a writer, I saw clearly how much prejudice there was against women.
It’s true, of course, that we finally got the vote. And the vote is important, but as feminists have always understood, it is not sufficient to guarantee equality. We also need an Equal Rights Amendment to make sure that our rights are incorporated in and protected by the Constitution so they can never be taken away. Happily a new generation of feminists—both female and male—has begun to understand this and is ready to fight for complete equality.
The concept of the “rights of man” arose during the Enlightenment and gave violent birth to the American and French Revolutions, in 1776 and 1789 respectively. Naturally, there were women who responded to that concept by pointing out their lack of rights. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women argued that women as well as men needed rights. A contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the founders of the American Experiment, Wollstonecraft, like most 18th-century women, lived a life sorely in need of rights. Married to William Godwin, mother of Mary Godwin-Shelley, Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, the fate of so many women of that era. The life of the daughter she left behind, who married Percy Shelley when she was 19, was also tragic. Mary Shelley lost children in infancy and her poet husband drowned off the coast of Italy. She left the world her great fantasy, Frankenstein, which has kept publishers and movie producers in business ever since.