ERA back from the dead

Women's groups push for Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

By Ted Cox

The Equal Rights Amendment ain't dead yet in Illinois.

Dozens of organizations affiliated through the ERA Illinois Coalition plan to lobby state representatives in Springfield Tuesday in a bid to finally pass the constitutional amendment, after Illinois was one of the key states to fail to pass it ahead of a federal deadline in 1982.

Critics say the point is moot and that the General Assembly's passage would be symbolic with no real effect. But if the Illinois House were to pass it — after the Senate approved it by a 43-12 vote last month — it could yet become a U.S. constitutional amendment if Congress were to reopen the deadline.

"It would not be symbolic at all," said Michelle Fadeley, president of the state National Organization for Women, "especially given the current political climate. We really do want to make sure that our rights that we won are guaranteed and cannot be repealed, revoked, or interpreted in such a way that they're not really being enforced."

The actual ERA, which has been around in some form since at least 1923 and passed Congress in 1972, states simply: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Critics, however, have called it redundant and unnecessary, insisting that women are protected by other laws against discrimination.

Back in the day, it quickly cleared 35 state legislatures by 1975, but that's where it met resistance. A deadline for passage was extended to 1982, but it failed to pass the Illinois House when Speaker George Ryan, later to be disgraced and imprisoned after serving as governor, refused to call a vote on a rule change that would have allowed passage by a simple majority rather than the three-fifths vote required by the state constitution.

Some charged that was party politics at play, as Ryan was then Gov. Jim Thompson's running mate as a candidate for lieutenant governor and was playing to his conservative base.

ERA supporters spelled his name in pig's blood on the floor of the Capitol Building in Springfield, but that didn't sway Ryan, even though 40 Republican representatives supported the procedural move to change the three-fifths requirement.

Gov. Bruce Rauner did not take a position on the ERA after the Senate approved it last month.

According to Fadeley, "prospects are very good" for proponents to get the needed 71 votes in the House this time. "We believe we are within one, maybe two votes of what we need in the House," she added, "and it's looking like we'll have a good possibility of closing those down."

She expects 500 or more people to show up for a noon rally Tuesday at the Capitol, with eight busloads confirmed to be making the trip from various parts of the state. Proponents will lobby legislators after the rally, with hopes that a vote will be called next week.

Fadeley said three out of four panels that addressed a Human Services Committee hearing on the matter in Chicago on Monday were in favor of passage, with House members in attendance largely receptive, and that of those submitting witness slips for the hearing almost 3,500 were in favor, with just over 300 people opposed.

After Nevada belatedly passed the ERA last year, Illinois would become the 37th state to approve it, leaving it one state short of the 38 required for final approval — again, if Congress were to reopen the deadline that expired in 1982.

Ted Cox