Activists supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by Illinois lawmakers march along State Street during a 1978 rally. | Chicago Sun-Times file photo
Senate Democrats look to revive dormant Equal Rights Amendment
SPRINGFIELD-Senate Democrats positioned themselves to “rectify an historical wrong” this week by reviving the long-dormant push to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but Republicans dismissed the push as a politically motivated drive to increase Democratic turnout in the fall elections.
The bid to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment, which was the subject of an epic Statehouse battle in the early 1980s that helped kill the feminist push nationally to amend the U.S. Constitution, comes from state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago and could be a vehicle for Democrats to help spur fall turnout from among women.
Steans has sponsored a resolution that would require approval from both the state Senate and House to make the Illinois the 36th state to ratify the amendment, which provides that “equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
“My hope in passing the ERA is to rectify an historical wrong and serve as a symbol of the ongoing fight for women’s rights and equality,” Steans told the Chicago Sun-Times. “While Illinois has taken a strong place in the fight for marriage equality, history still regards Illinois as the place where ratification of the ERA was stopped.
“We clearly need to guarantee critical rights like equal pay and reproductive freedom, however,” said Steans, whose resolution is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Executive Committee.
But the top House Republican minimized talk of the ERA as a politically driven move to get Democratic women to turn out for the Nov. 4 elections.
"This is just more about the November election and getting a base out," House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, told reporters. "This is more about politics than it is substance."
In 1982, then-Illinois House Speaker George Ryan, who would go on to become governor, blocked ratification in the state of the Equal Rights Amendment, a move that effectively killed the movement nationally.
Thirty-five states had previously ratified the proposed constitutional amendment, and approval in 38 states is required before the Constitution could be amended.
Congress passed the ERA in 1972 and gave states seven years to ratify the amendment. When not enough states had don so by that March 1979 deadline, Congress extended the states’ ratification deadline another five years to June 30, 1982.
Feminist groups have contested the validity of that ratification deadline, and there is a belief among supporters that passage in Illinois could persuade Congress to remove its ratification deadline and give the overall movement a shot in the arm.
In Illinois, the push for ERA was one of the most contentious battles to ever play out at the Capitol.
Up against that 1982 deadline, feminists from across the country converged on the state Capitol but faced their legislative Waterloo in the Illinois House, where Ryan held the gavel.
They sought Ryan’s support in changing House rules so the measure could pass with a simple majority instead of a three-fifths vote. But the Kankakee Republican, who opposed the ERA, blocked the change, ensuring the legislation’s death.
In response, angry ERA supporters staged one of the most memorable protests at the Capitol in state history by writing Ryan’s name in blood on the floor the statehouse.
“One of the main objections at the time was that the ERA would allow women to be drafted and sent into combat,” Steans said. “Of course, we don’t have a draft today, and we have tens of thousands of women proudly serving their country, including heroes like Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.”
The last time the ERA surfaced in Illinois was in 2003, when the House, then under Democratic control, passed a ratification bill. But the state Senate didn’t follow suit, again snuffing out support from Illinois for the constitutional amendment.
“While there’s no guarantee a ratification process can be revived, we can undo the historic wrong in Illinois by passing the ERA,” Steans said. “It also puts Illinois legislators on record, so voters can judge whether they’re willing to right the wrongs of the past.”