South Carolina bill could make national history, boost economy

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Barbara Fry, administrator of Equal Means ERA, speaks at a town hall meeting in Mount Pleasant in 2018. SUBMITTED

Pop quiz: What part of the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal rights for women?

Answer: None of it.

The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination against women.

Since 1923, there has been a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would specifically correct that oversight, but it has yet to make it to Congress for adoption.

The Equal Rights Amendment was written by Alice Paul, a suffragist and women's rights advocate, and Crystal Eastman, a lawyer, journalist and leader in the suffragist movement who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.

After the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was adopted in August 1920, the two activists turned their efforts to equality.

Eastman and Paul were able to get the amendment introduced to Congress in December 1923. It was presented - never getting a hearing - every year until 1970.

On March 22, 1972, the proposal passed both houses and was sent to the state legislatures for ratification. Only 38 states were required to ratify - or approve - the amendment in order for it to become part of the Constitution.

The legislation was on the fast track to Washington when it stalled with only 35 states' approval in 1979, with no other states ratifying during a congressionally approved three-year extension that ended in 1982.

In seven states, only one of their governing chambers approved the ERA amendment, leaving those states without ratification. South Carolina was one of them.

The state's House of Representatives voted 83-0 to ratify on March 22, 1972, the day the bill was released, but it didn't pass the Senate.

Fast forward 45 years.

In 2017, the Nevada Legislature ratified the amendment on March 22; the Illinois General Assembly did likewise May 30, 2018. That still left the proposal one vote shy of being eligible for reconsideration, an effort that could come about under Article 5, Section 1, of the Constitution.

South Carolina could be the deciding vote for the amendment.

Two bills - HR 3391 and HR 3340 - were introduced in the South Carolina House of Representatives in January with the goal of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. They have been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) who is also one of the sponsors of HR 3340.

HR 3391 reads: "A joint resolution - To ratify a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America providing that equality of rights under the law must not be denied or abridged on account of sex."

Weston Newton, representative for District 120 in the State House of Representatives, is on the judiciary committee. He is also a co-sponsor of HR 3391.

"Numerous women from my district as well as across the state reached out to me sharing their support for the legislation," said Newton. "Even though the timeframe expired in 1982, it's a powerful message and symbolic gesture which is not lost on me as a son, spouse, and father of two young women. In summary, I would say it's never too late to do the right thing."

Newton said there are numerous laws that already exist prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender, but the amendment language goes further than that and it underpins the very basis of which those laws have been passed.

"The legislation enjoys bipartisan support and I hope it would move forward through to the House and the Senate," he added.

Barbara Fry, an ERA activist and administrator of Equal Means ERA, said people have to educate themselves on the importance of passing the ERA.

"I think when 80 percent or people think they already have equal rights, it's not an issue. We've tried very hard to put together presentations, letters to the editor, but it's a matter of people being open to it and realizing that the most basic protections in our country women do not have under the Constitution," Fry said. "Once we get that, I think it will make a huge difference because suddenly it's in stone. Then people aren't making and revoking and failing to fund laws."

Nancy Williams, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area, said the ERA is a pro-family bill that would have direct and indirect impacts to protect the financial health of families, a much-needed outcome because of the economic disparities South Carolina women face - particularly women of color - and how that impacts families.

Additionally, it would help defend women against domestic violence, which claims the life of one woman every 12 days in South Carolina.

"I think it's unacceptable that equal rights is not the law of the land," Williams said. "Our LWV chapter is joining the ERA Coalition and LWV Charleston in picking up this banner of support for ratification of the amendment in South Carolina. The ERA would provide a fundamental and universal remedy against discrimination for men and women. The quality of rights should not be abridged on account of sex."

One of the two primary reasons advocates are pushing for passage of the ERA is the fact that more than half of the citizens of this country are not specifically mentioned as covered under the Constitution. As of 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were 165, 311,059 women and 160,408,119 men.

The other primary reason is the imbalance in wages.

"Women typically are underpaid in the workforce and they constitute a pretty large part of the workforces," Williams said. Their families depend upon their income and in many cases they are the sole supporter."

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, in South Carolina, "the median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $34,182 while median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $42,238. This means that women in South Carolina are paid 81 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual wage gap of $8,056."

The statistics for women of color is worse, with black women paid 57 cents, Latinas paid 53 cents and Asian women paid 68 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. That information comes from data found in the 2015 American Community Survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"If you think about it, if a woman goes out and gets a job - if they start her out lower because she's a woman, then her entire career she makes less. Because of life time work discrimination and the pay gap, women make between $400,000 and $2.5 million less," Williams said. "It's not only the money you bring home but the money you can put in the bank and save, the money you can put toward your retirement or 401k. Why should one guy's friend make more than his wife does in the same work place because of gender?"

Fry said South Carolinians should contact their legislators and tell them they support equal rights.

"Because we're in the middle of a two-year legislative session, the bill will continue on the docket. There is a need to be in touch with their elected representative and let them know they want this bill passed," Fry said. "Wouldn't this be wonderful if, when the League of Women Voters celebrates [its] 100th anniversary in 2020 that the ERA becomes the law of the land?"

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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