As we all learned in elementary school, our Declaration of Independence from the British Empire was adopted on July 4, 1776. It declared that the thirteen American colonies were now a new nation — the United States of America. Unfortunately, it also declared that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And it meant just that. In the constitution that followed, women were left out. Not only no vote, but no equal rights of any kind.
Four months earlier, Abigail Adams had written to her husband John, a leader in the Continental Congress. “In the new code of laws,” she said, ” remember the ladies and be more generous than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” Adams replied, “I cannot but laugh. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
He spoke the truth.
A hundred years later, Fourth of July in 1876, women still had no political, social or economic rights. And they also were left out of the official Centennial celebration at the Philadelphia Exposition. Susan B. Anthony and four other suffragists crashed the opening ceremony to present their strongly worded “Declaration of Rights of Women.” They were determined to place on record for the daughters of 1976 the fact that their foremothers a hundred years earlier had asserted that women ought to be equal under the law.
Despite the suffragists efforts, by 1976 women had gained one, and only one, constitutional right — the vote. Still no equal marriage rights, no equal economic rights, no equal educational rights, no equal inheritance rights. Not even the right to petition for their children in divorce.
Well guess what? On this 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the daughters of 2013 still don’t have equal constitutional rights with men, though many Americans think otherwise. Nope.
The rights we have now are all statutory, not constitutional. That means a hostile Congress or Supreme Court could take them away in the dead of night. Think it couldn’t happen? Need I mention the current assaults on abortion rights and birth control, the numerous attempts to overturn Title IX, and the Supreme Court’s weakening of employment discrimination law?
It has never in modern history been more clear that U.S. women need bedrock constitutional rights that cannot be eviscerated or taken away altogether. The Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced in every Congress since 1923. It was voted out of Congress and sent to the states for ratification only once (1972). It failed three states short of the required 38 — because unlike other constitutional amendments, this one had an arbitrary 10 year ratification deadline.
Advocates in Congress are still working to get the amendment passed. There is currently legislation in both the Senate and the House that would declare the deadline null and void. If these bills ever pass, only three more states will need to ratify, and women will at last have equal standing with men in our constitution.
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until July 4, 2076 for it to happen.
In addition to hosting her radio show, guest contributor Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need! and Cult of Power: The Inside Story of the Fight to Open Augusta National Golf Club, and How It Exposed the Ingrained Corporate Sexism That Kept Women Down.