It was my honor and privilege to have served as president of the National Woman’s Party in the 1990s. The party was headquartered in the historic Sewall-Belmont House, on the corner of Second and Constitution avenues. This is choice real estate in Washington, D.C. It is adjacent to the Senate Hart Building, across from the Supreme Court and a block from the U.S. Capitol. But for me, it symbolized women’s fight for voting and other rights.

National Woman’s Party founder Alice Paul had actually lived in the Sewall-Belmont House for decades, and I can’t begin to tell you how awesome it was to be in her house. It held so many important items of women’s history: the desk where Susan B. Anthony wrote what became the 19th Amendment; the suffrage flags carried by women (and some men!) when they picketed the White House. And always the spirits of determined women, like Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so many others, were present in our memory. What a stalwart group of women. They never gave up.

My early mentor, Rep. Martha W. Griffiths, D-Mich., introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. On March 22, 1972, it passed Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. However, it fell three states short of ratification within the 10-year limit imposed by Congress. The thought of starting over was daunting. Then, in 1992, Michigan ratified a constitutional amendment first proposed in 1789! It had to do with congressional pay; Michigan was the last state needed and it became the 27th Amendment.

This inspired three women, University of Richmond Law School students Allison Held, Sheryl Herndon and Danielle Stager, to write a paper proposing that Congress do away with the ERA’s time limit, which would mean we would simply need to find three more states to ratify.

While others expressed reservations about this approach, I felt I’d much rather persuade three states to ratify than to start over completely, and thus the “three-state strategy” was born. For a variety of reasons we decided Missouri was the most likely target, so I spent two winters out there lobbying their state legislature, to no avail. Missouri never ratified.

I retired from the National Woman’s Party board and moved to Maine, which I always say was one of the best decisions I ever made. But, happily, other women (and men!) picked up the torch, as they have throughout our history.

In 2019, Rep. Jerrold  Nadler held the first hearing on the ERA in 38 years. I was so excited that it was going to come before the U.S. House to remove the time limit. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Nevada ratified in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia followed suit in January. Today, all of the requisite 38 states have ratified, but barriers remain. The U.S. House has voted to remove the time limit, but the Republican-controlled Senate will almost certainly not do so, nor would President Trump support the ERA. In addition, five states that originally ratified the ERA have voted to repeal that ratification. But women have faced – and overcome – many barriers on our road to equality. I remain hopeful that someone, somewhere will find the path forward once again.

Meanwhile, here in Maine, efforts continue to pass L.D. 433, the “Maine ERA,” which would simply add to our state constitution language prohibiting discrimination based on sex. It has cleared the Senate, but we must still find five Republican votes in the House, since every Democrat and independent has already voted for it. I am puzzled as to why women’s equality has become a partisan issue – it never used to be.

The timing is right. This is both Maine’s bicentennial and the centennial of most women winning voting rights through the 19th Amendment. Wouldn’t it be amazing, in this historic year, if voters could vote to ratify the Maine ERA in November?

 


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