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Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? It’s back

Demonstrators on their way to the Minnesota State Capitol building during the Women's March Minnesota in St. Paul on Saturday, Jan 21, 2017. In light of renewed interest in women's issues, Minnesota is considering passage of a state-wide equal rights amendment. Liam James Doyle / St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo

ST. PAUL -- The ERA is a thing again in Minnesota, to the delight of supporters, some of whom have been fighting for it since the feminist movement of the 1970s.

On Thursday, a state House committee approved two ERA measures:

  • Urge Congress to remove the deadline for the federal ERA to be ratified.

  • Offer a state ERA to voters on 2020 ballots.

ERA primer

For those of you under 40 — more than half of Minnesotans — we’re talking about the Equal Rights Amendment.

It says women and men have equal rights.

Yep, that’s really all it says.

  • Federal ERA: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

  • Minnesota ERA: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.”

This was a thing — a big thing — in the 1970s. Amending the U.S. Constitution is no easy task. There were big marches and multimedia ad campaigns (that meant TV, radio, newsprint and billboards back then, maybe skywriting).

And it was controversial. Those opposed were worried that women might be required to serve in combat alongside men, and that it might lead to unisex bathrooms (both of which have actually happened anyway). And some people — including men and women — just didn’t like the “libbers” (that was an unflattering term for supporters of women’s liberation) and the changes they represented when compared with traditional female roles.

What’s the status now?

The federal ERA has never been ratified. But it’s not dead either. We think.

When Congress approved the ERA in 1972, it set a deadline for three-fourths of the states to ratify it, as laid out in Article V of the Constitution.

Minnesota met the deadline, ratifying it in 1973. Not enough other states did, but the battle didn’t end. In 2017, Nevada became the first state since Indiana in 1977 to ratify, and last year, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify. So it’s one state away. Except that the last deadline was in 1979. And several states have rescinded their ratifications, which brings the whole thing into a legal netherworld.

So no one’s positive what extending the congressional deadline would do, but supporters say it would pave the way for adoption. Virginia lawmakers are wrangling with it this week. (Legislation there failed to clear a GOP-controlled House subcommittee on Tuesday, Jan. 22.)

State ERA

A state ERA would be simpler. If more than 50 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in November 2020 say “yes,” it becomes part of the state Constitution.

A number of other states have done this.

Supporters of the Minnesota ERA say things still aren’t equal today.

They point to economic disparities between men and women; sexual violence and the lack of justice for it; and discrimination in the workplace, especially when related to maternity leave. Those are the basic talking points.

The #MeToo movement has emboldened a new generation of women to demand fair treatment.

But for many, the struggle has always been there.

“People say ‘Why?’ and I say ‘Why ever not?’ ” Amy Caucutt of Rochester told Minnesota lawmakers. Caucutt noted that her drive Thursday morning from Rochester to St. Paul to speak in favor of the ERA was northing; in 1978, she drove to Washington, D.C., for a national ERA March.

Who’s against equal right?

No one is publicly arguing against the basic ideas behind the ERA. But it’s not clear if either of these two measures will pass the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate.

Several House Republicans Thursday audibly voted in favor of the measures, although their votes were not required because its passage was a foregone conclusion in the Democratic-controlled committee.

Similarly, the measures enjoy strong support in the Democratic-majority House, and Gov. Tim Walz supports both measures.

However, some Republicans have raised concerns that a state ERA could be used to expand abortion rights. This is the primary conservative talking point against the ERA.

State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, suggested a change to the proposed state ERA that would ensure it would have “no impact on rights related to abortion services.”

State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, the lead sponsor of the state ERA bill in the House, rebuffed the idea, saying it was not needed and the state ERA “has nothing to do with abortion rights.”