March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on how far women have come in fighting for equal rights and representation, and how much work we still have ahead of us. When our country was founded, women didn’t have the right to get an education, own property, manage their own finances or vote. Now, more than 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, we stand on the edge of what could be a major watershed moment for gender equity in our country.

On March 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed both the Equal Rights Act (ERA) and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). With the ratification of the ERA in several states over the last few years, we’re now just one vote in the U.S. Senate away from having an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, solidifying all Americans’ right to equal treatment under the law, regardless of their gender.

Still, our path forward will not be easy. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated and deepened the divides caused by gender, racial and economic inequalities. Women, especially mothers and women of color, have been leaving or forced out of their jobs at significantly higher rates than men during the pandemic. Data from earlier this year showed Black Mainers were more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.

Just one day before the ERA and VAWA votes in the House, a white man fatally shot eight people in the Atlanta area — six of them working-class Asian-American women. The man responsible admitted to the crimes, but hid behind the excuse of sexual “temptation.”

Changing our laws to make sure our political and legal systems protect women is vital. But we need to make sure our culture keeps up with these ideals of equity, too. During the peak of the national fight for the Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly and those like her warned what this “radical” change would lead to: same-sex marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms, and, god forbid, women in the military being allowed to serve on the front lines. Even now, people are reluctant to support this measure, with 204 members of Congress voting against it this month. The question that we have is: What are they still so afraid of?

We have come a long way since that fight in the ‘70s. But women are still paid significantly less than men across the board. Women still hold significantly fewer leadership roles than men – only a few years ago did Maine elect its first woman governor and only last year did we elect our first female Secretary of State. And among Fortune 500 companies, women CEOs are outnumbered by CEOs named James. There is still so much work to be done.

There is reason to hope, however. The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is inching closer every day, thanks in large part the availability of vaccines. The research that helped make these vaccines possible was the work of Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Karikó. For years, her interest in mRNA research was dismissed out of hand by her colleagues. After being demoted at her job, she admits she thought, “maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough.” Now, her work is helping to save millions of people across the world.

This is the 21st Century. This women’s history month, let’s declare loud and clear: Women belong. Women belong in the classroom and on the field. Women belong wherever their talents and interests lead them: in the laboratory, in the office and in the boardroom. Women belong at the polling place and on the ballot. Women belong in the House and the Senate, and yes, even in the Oval Office.

Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, serves as Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, serves as Assistant Senate Majority Leader.

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