Roberta Waddle of Fayetteville won’t forget the day the Equal Rights Amendment died in North Carolina.
She was there on June 4, 1982, when state senators opposed to ERA barely but successfully voted to block a measure seeking to ratify a change to the U.S. Constitution making clear that equal rights under the law can’t be limited or denied due to gender.
Women walked down the Legislative Building stairs chanting that they would oppose those senators at the polls. The defeat ended a decade of close calls for pro-ERA forces in North Carolina, targeted by national feminist forces to reach the 38 states needed to change the Constitution. They fell three states short.
“I swear the building shook and they shouted as they went down, ‘we’ll remember in November,’” said Waddle, a former state president of the National Organization for Women. “It still sends shivers down my back to think about it.”
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Waddle, 71, and six other women were back at the General Assembly last week, convinced the ratification fight isn’t over. They quietly held circular green “ERA YES” signs outside the office of the chairman of a House judiciary panel, which has held onto a ratification bill for more than a month.
They want the bill and a similar measure in the Senate acted upon favorably. It’s a long shot, however. Some lawmakers connect the issue to a bygone time in U.S. history, or to liberal, feminist politics.
Others simply don’t see a need for ERA, saying inequalities between the sexes have narrowed or gone away on pay or community leadership compared with when Congress sent the amendment to states in 1972. The number of female legislators in Raleigh also has increased greatly since then.
ERA is “even more unnecessary than it was back then,” said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, adding that laws protect women to ensure they get paid fairly, while some women voluntarily take lower-paying jobs or leave the workforce to have children. “I think most women are choosing what they want to do, and I think most of us are accepted.”
Those seeking to revive ERA counter that unequal pay persists even with laws on the books, pregnant women can get treated unfairly at work and civil claims of gender-based violence have been limited. ERA would make gender bias claims subject to the same high constitutional scrutiny as race bias claims receive, said Marena Groll of Durham, coordinator of North Carolina4ERA.
The ratification effort has been revived in North Carolina as Republicans took over the General Assembly. GOP lawmakers have passed laws on abortion, taxes and education that opponents say hurt women.
“They are absolutely ignorant about the implications of what they’re doing as it relates to women and their impact on women and families,” Pat Orrange, 71, of Raleigh, said outside the office of Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, the committee chairman.
Daughtry said in an interview the amendment wasn’t high on the priority list of bills within his committee.
“I don’t think it’s critical at this time,” said Daughtry, adding tremendous strides have been made in gender equality, such as in his field of lawyering. Senate bill sponsor Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, doesn’t expect her measure will get a hearing.
Pro-ERA forces are considering a two-pronged approach after ratification occurred only in 35 states before Congress’ ratification deadline of June 30, 1982. Thirty-eight states were needed.
One path is for Congress to restart the nationwide process. The other is to keep working on states that never approved it, based on a legal premise that no time limit can be placed on amendments.
ERA is important to consider now with Hillary Clinton again trying to make history as the first female president, said House sponsor Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg: “I think it’s (a) good time for us to start to realize that we have more power than we think.”
The Virginia state Senate approved ratification earlier this year, but the bill died in a House committee. A House member is also preparing to advance an ERA bill in Illinois, where the Senate backed ratification last year. North Carolina ratification would require simple majorities in the House and the Senate and isn’t subject to a gubernatorial veto.