The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: This isn’t the ERA era

If supporters of a state Equal Rights Amendment in Maine were honest, they’d admit the proposal wouldn’t accomplish a damn thing.

Then, they could devote their energies to more realistic endeavors, like, I dunno, affordable health care or climate change or choosing a new state song to replace Kinky Friedman’s “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.”

It’s not that serious inequalities between the sexes don’t exist. It’s just that a constitutional amendment wouldn’t have any discernable impact on them. As proof, one need only consider racial disparities. More than 150 years ago, Congress passed three amendments to the U.S. Constitution to address those issues. You may have noticed racism is still with us.

Regardless of what state or federal constitutions proclaim, the real problem is an excess of creepy morons, who neither know nor care what the law says. Some of them are president.

As a result, women continue to be paid less than men, face unreasonable barriers to promotion, suffer sexual harassment and abuse, and get passed over for the sweet late-night-hosting gigs on TV. That’s despite the fact there are already laws against most of that stuff. Adding the ERA to the legal mix changes nothing.

The first attempt to pass a state amendment banning sex discrimination was proposed in 1973. It failed in a Legislature mostly composed of men. That same year, those same guys also shot down an effort to have Maine ratify the federal ERA. Two years later, the good ol’ boys relented a bit and approved the fed amendment, but continued to display such hostility to a state ERA that a bill proposing one was withdrawn before it could even go to public hearing. In 1977, a measure merely calling for a study of a state amendment was summarily killed.

In 1984, supporters of the measure took the issue directly to the public. They collected signatures and got an advisory referendum on the ballot pressuring the still overwhelmingly male Legislature to approve the ERA. But ERA backers ran an anemic campaign, while opponents – spurred on by the Christian right – unleashed a barrage of horrifying claims about the amendment’s impact: unisex bathrooms! abortion on demand! same-sex marriage!

The referendum was defeated by landslide numbers. All those predictions came to pass anyway. (Insert ironic snark here.)

The results of that election had such a political impact that the Legislature didn’t even consider another ERA bill for over 30 years. Even though by 2015, a sizable number of representatives and senators were women, it still didn’t pass. Another attempt in 2017 went nowhere. And a bill introduced in 2019 was carried over to the 2020 session after it became obvious it wouldn’t get the two-thirds majority needed to send it to voters. There are still a lot of pre-pubescent politicians worried they’re going to have to share a bathroom with icky girls or icky boys.

Most of the recent opposition has come from Republicans, who claim there are already enough statutes on the books to protect women. In 2017, GOP state Rep. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn told the House, “As a woman, I stand opposed [to the ERA], and I joyfully celebrate the laws that are already in place to protect my rights.”

Not all those laws, though. Guerin is anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage. Her position on unisex toilets is unclear.

Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement citing the progress women have made, but warning these advances are far from permanent. “Those laws which cover discrimination only in specific areas such as housing, education, credit, employment – they are ephemeral,” Mills wrote, “subject to repeal or change at the whim of any particular Legislature or initiative.”

Fair enough. “The Handmaid’s Tale” could come true at any time. But even a constitutional amendment seems flimsy protection against that.

The sad truth is the ERA won’t fix society. At best, its passage would be symbolic. At worst, it would just give the morons another target.

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