WASHINGTON – Women's activists are renewing a long-stalled push for a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment, and they've found a Republican ally in Rep. Tom Reed of Corning.
Reed was the only Republican and the only man to speak at a star-studded Capitol Hill news conference this week relaunching the fight for the amendment, which passed Congress in 1972 only to fail when just 35 of the required 38 states ratified it before the 1982 deadline.
Under a House resolution introduced this week, that deadline would be removed. And Reed, co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and a lawmaker who has increasingly worked across party lines in recent years, said he would be happy to try to persuade his fellow Republicans to back that resolution.
"It is time for us in the U.S. Constitution to pass on to our sons and daughters the message that all people are created equal, that all women are created equal," Reed said.
In an interview Tuesday, Reed said his interest in the amendment took root in a Faith and Politics Institute pilgrimage he made last year to Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the American women's rights movement, which is in Reed's district.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat, accompanied Reed on the pilgrimage. And over the several days they spent together, Maloney asked Reed if he would be the lead Republican co-sponsor on a House effort to revive the Equal Rights Amendment.
"I just said: 'I'm totally on board with this – whatever you need from me,' " Reed said.
He cited two reasons for backing the amendment: one practical, one personal.
While some argue that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments protect women's rights without explicitly saying so, Reed said it's important for women's rights to be enshrined in the Constitution just to send the strong message that discrimination against women will not be tolerated.
Reed, the youngest of 12 children, also noted that he has eight sisters – and that his mother raised that family on her own, after Reed's father died when he was 2.
"The strongest woman was my single mother, Betty Barr Reed, who taught me the power of women, the power and strength that women possess uniquely in America and across the world," Reed said. "And so I am humbled to stand on her shoulders."
Actresses Patricia Arquette and Alyssa Milano also spoke up for the Equal Rights Amendment at the news conference, as did Maloney and Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.
“Since the inception of our country women were left out of the Constitution – intentionally and for the ensuing centuries women in America have been fighting for their full equal rights in the American Constitution," Arquette said. "We have waited long enough."
Prospects for the Equal Rights Amendment resolution are good in the House, which Democrats control. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, have introduced a similar resolution in the Senate, but its prospects there are less clear, given that Republicans control that chamber and are typically more reluctant to push for any move that could conceivably lead to more lawsuits.
The ERA stalled in the 1970s after conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly organized a movement to stop it, Allison K. Lange, assistant professor of U.S. history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, said in a Washington Post op-ed last year.
"They posed hypothetical arguments to prompt fear and doubts about the ERA’s promises," Lange wrote. "Advocates convinced lawmakers that the amendment would force women to sign up for the draft, decriminalize rape, allow for same-sex marriages, give men permission not to support their families and require Americans to use unisex toilets."
Nearly 50 years later, women's rights remain under attack both in the White House and in statehouses across the country, said Maloney, who has been pushing the ERA for decades.
“And it’s happening, in part, because our Constitution does not contain the word ‘women,’ because it does not guarantee our equal rights," Maloney said. "So, we need to make it clear that equal means equal. To do that, we must spell it out in the Constitution: E-R-A."