In June 1982, the Illinois General Assembly had the chance to vote for the federal Equal Rights Amendment as a deadline for ratification loomed. It chose not to. On Wednesday, nearly 36 years later, the state Senate voted 43-12 to approve it. It's now up to the House to do its part in bringing about a valuable change that is long overdue.
The amendment states a simple proposition that is as pertinent today as it was then: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Congress passed it and sent it to the states in 1972 for their approval within seven years.
By 1977, 35 states had ratified the ERA, leaving just three to complete the process. But a "STOP ERA" campaign led by Illinois' own Phyllis Schlafly managed to bring the momentum to a halt. Congress extended the deadline to June 30, 1982, but to no avail. Time ran out.
Or did it? In recent years, the ERA has been revived by advocates who argue that the deadline was invalid — meaning the amendment could still be adopted if three states decided to ratify. Last year, Nevada became the 36th state to do so, leaving two to go. Illinois has the chance to put it nearly over the top.
Since 1972, the Supreme Court has found numerous laws that discriminated against women to be unconstitutional. In a 1996 decision requiring Virginia Military Institute to admit females, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Parties who seek to defend gender-based government action must demonstrate an exceedingly persuasive justification for that action. Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature."
Opponents once warned that the ERA would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage and women in combat. Both have come about without the ERA. Abortion rights, which they feared the amendment would confirm in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, have been repeatedly upheld by the court.
So what difference would the amendment make at this stage? Maybe not much in tangible terms. But it would have immense symbolic weight, giving the highest affirmation to the principle that discrimination against women is wrong.
Getting that 38th state, however, would not be the end of the battle. The courts would have to decide whether the deadlines Congress set are valid. They would also have to rule on whether states have the right to rescind their ratification — as five of the current count of 36 have voted to do. If the answer to either question is yes, the effort to adopt the ERA would have to start all over. But the supporters make a plausible case that the answer to both is no.
It's worth finding out. Over the past generation, women have made huge strides in a host of spheres, helped by changes in the law. But in the era of #MeToo, it's clear that full equality, in every sense of the word, has yet to be achieved. Enshrining the ERA in the Constitution would hasten that day.
This editorial was originally published in the Chicago Tribune and shared by the Associated Press