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Commentary: Equal rights are not shared by all

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For decades, advocates have pushed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would protect against sex-based discrimination.

Recently, The Post and Courier twice made reference to Americans having equal rights. The most recent was the July 6 editorial, “Don’t let extremists define our national symbols.” The following quote caught my eye:

“It has taken a lot longer than ‘fourscore and seven years’ for equal rights to be extended to all Americans …”

Indeed, it has. For a large segment of our society, it’s 232 years and counting.

Women, who make up 52% of this nation’s population, do not have equal rights guaranteed under the Constitution, even though a vast majority of Americans (94%) believe they should. In fact, a huge problem is that 80% of the population — including, evidently, the editors of this newspaper — think women actually do. They do not.

The July 6 editorial also refers to Thomas Jefferson’s expression of “all men” have “certain inalienable rights” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. That reading is pretty close to what he meant. But to be more specific: all white men of property. As we now know, black men were not included in this calculation, nor were poor whites, and women were the furthest from his mind. Mr. Jefferson had a wholly different view of women and governance:

“Were our state a pure democracy, in which all its inhabitants should meet together to transact their business, there would yet be excluded from their deliberations … women; who, to prevent depravation of morals, and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in public meetings of men.”

While we have made a lot of progress over the years in expanding our founder’s vision, women still lack constitutional protection. And those who cling to the belief that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause has them covered have another thing coming.

In the relatively few rulings where the Supreme Court used that clause in cases of sex discrimination, its decisions bounce all over the place. The best it could finally do was create a standard upon which cases involving “sex” should be reviewed. And guess what? It’s not equal. It’s a step below what other groups who have a similar history of discrimination in this country — race, nation of origin and religion — are held to.

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This happens because without “women,” or “sex,” specifically identified in the Constitution as a classification having equal rights, the current “deciders” get to make judgments or laws or rulings based on their own conscience or disposition or set of values and beliefs. And chances are the body that’s making those decisions is 80% men.

There are two things that need to be done to correct this problem.

First, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. While it failed to get the required 38 states’ support in the 1970s when sent out for ratification, it’s now just one state short. The South Carolina Legislature has a joint resolution in the House that will be brought up in the 2020 legislative session that, if successful, would make history for South Carolina and finally make constitutional protection for women (and men) equitable. The only way that’s going to happen is when enough people contact their legislators to register their support.

Second, more women need to run and be elected to state office. Your state representative has way more influence on the opportunities you have in your lifetime than the federal government ever will.

Women view life on a different spectrum than men, and their voices and opinions need to be heard and considered in lawmaking. History tells us that those in power do not share that power easily. Women have to step into the fray to guarantee their voices are heard and their needs met.

Since 94% of Americans believe men and women should have equal rights — and 80% already think the Constitution guarantees them — isn’t it time we made those beliefs real?

Contact your legislator today in support of the ERA, and if you’re a woman, run for state (and local) office. Your sons and daughters, and all future generations, will thank you.

Barbara Fry is the leader of the Equal Means ERA Coalition in Charleston.

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