Equal Rights Amendment

Equal Rights Amendment advocate state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (center) during a past Statehouse discussion addressing South Carolina's union-unfriendly right-to-work status. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

True story: South Carolina didn’t formally endorse a woman’s right to vote until three weeks before the first man walked on the moon.

Which made us a tad late to the party — the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified a half-century earlier.

So it was mildly surprising three years later, in 1972, when our state House of Representatives voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on the same day Congress sent it out.

Of course, that uncharacteristically progressive gesture soon ran head-first into political reality. The South Carolina Senate refused to consider the proposed amendment, which would forbid discrimination on the basis of sex. Even though more than 51 percent of the state’s population is female.

And, hey, they could even vote.

Nearly 50 years later, South Carolina is in a position to become the state that finally puts the ERA over the threshold to become the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Legislature is considering two bills — one from state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and another from Charleston Reps. Leon Stavrinakis and Peter McCoy — to ratify the ERA, 47 years after it was first proposed.

Still, Cobb-Hunter gives the measure less than a snowball’s chance of passing, and her doubt raises an all-too-obvious question:

Who is opposed to equal rights for women?

No guarantee

Barbara Fry remembers the spring of 1972 very well.

She was a college freshman, and recalls her mother spending a lot of time giving presentations, hosting meetings and attending rallies. Fry thought it was nice that mom had her own interests.

“Today, I look back on that time and wish I could reach out and shake that self-absorbed teenager and tell her to wake up, pay attention,” Fry says. “Do you realize that your mom is working to get an amendment — to the Constitution of the United States — that would guarantee equal rights for all?”

Since then, Fry has taken up her mother’s mantle. She spends much of her time traveling to spread the word, and generate support, for the Equal Rights Amendment.

In informative and entertaining presentations, she debunks claims that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Fair Pay Act negate the need for the 24-word Equal Rights Amendment.

Which is actually an argument some people make.

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Fry also notes there’s no guarantee of equality in the Constitution. In fact, it doesn’t mention women even once. Which is kind of silly, considering none of us would be here without them.

So why isn’t this already part of the Constitution?

Any amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of states, which works out to 38. And by 1977, 35 states had signed on.

But conservatives including Phyllis Schlafly killed the ERA’s momentum by claiming it was an attack on traditional values. That old chestnut. Schlafly even argued the proposed amendment would take away women’s rights … to be taken care of by men.

Which may be the most ironic, and funniest, thing anyone ever said with a straight face.

A unique distinction

The deadline for passing the Equal Rights Amendment expired in 1982, but proponents say that’s a technicality that can be overcome through the courts or Congress.

That may be more difficult than it sounds, but the amendment is, without a doubt, gaining momentum. In 2017, Nevada Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA. Illinois followed suit last year.

The next state to ratify the ERA will put it over the top, and Fry argues it would be good for South Carolina’s reputation — and business — to get that distinction. It would send a message that South Carolina is a state that values everyone equally.

She’s absolutely right.

Other states recognize this potential, and Virginia and North Carolina are widely considered the next best candidates. The American Bar Association has focused its efforts on Virginia, lobbying lawmakers there to take an honorable place in history by establishing gender equality as an “irrevocable tenet of our society.”

Here, the League of Women Voters and the South Carolina Progressive Network are making similar arguments, hoping to at least raise awareness of the issue. And Cobb-Hunter says it would be a great ending to this story if South Carolina played a key role in something so positive.

Yes, but it would be even greater if people realized this is 2019, not 1919 — when this country was ridiculously still debating women’s suffrage.

This shouldn’t even be a question. And any politician who thinks otherwise should have to answer to a majority of voters.

Who, by the way, are women.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.