A bill is before the Missouri Legislature this session seeking the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Supporters hope that Missouri will be one of the three states still needed to ratify ERA as the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Rep. Deleta Williams, a Democrat from Warrensburg, will lead the effort for passage in the House during the current legislative session, which convened Jan. 5. Williams led a similar but failed effort in the last House session. This year, Kansas City Sen. Mary Groves Bland also has introduced the bill in the Senate.
"The current laws protecting women's rights are insufficient because there is no guarantee that they will survive," Williams said in a telephone interview last week. "Even Title IX, which did so much for women's athletics, is currently under attack in Congress. Only a Constitutional amendment can truly guarantee the equality of women and men under the law."
The battle over ERA has been long and hard-fought. Written in 1923 by suffragist leader Alice Paul, the amendment lingered in Congress for more than 50 years. In March 1972, the bill was approved by the full Congress and sent to the states for ratification with a seven-year time limit to gain the 38 necessary states.
By 1977, 35 states had ratified the bill. A year later Congress extended the deadline to 1982, but opposition groups succeeded in blocking passage in the 15 remaining states, including Missouri.
Since the deadline expired, many have believed ERA was a lost cause. Efforts to reintroduce the amendment in Congress have failed and public support has lost momentum.
However, in 1992, Congress accepted the ratification of the Madison amendment, which involved congressional pay raises, after 203 years. ERA activists believe this action offers a basis to set aside the time limit imposed for ratification.
"We do not believe that ERA is a moot point," said Williams. "The time limit, which was added into the bill's introduction and is not a part of the amendment, is not an obstacle. The first ERA extension and the Madison amendment demonstrate that ERA is still viable."
The current effort will seek ratification in three more states before returning to Congress to face the time limit issue.
"We need the strength of the Constitution to protect our rights," Williams said. "An amendment would aid the courts in addressing sexual harassment issues. It would also mean a lot, symbolically, to the women of the United States. We are the only (developed) country that has addressed civil rights since the '70s without including women."
Williams and her co-sponsors will attempt to move quickly for passage. She hopes to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor before the spring break in mid-March.
"There is definitely opposition," Williams admits. "We need 82 votes and I do not think we will know for sure until the buttons are pushed."
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Harrisonville Republican, will lead the effort against ratification. She testified against the bill in committee last session and will do so again this year.
"This bill is a waste of time because ERA is a moot issue. We should concentrate on issues more relevant to women in Missouri today, like education, infrastructure, and strong families," Hartzler said.
Hartzler believes that the ERA movement portrays women as victims and ignores the progress already achieved. She said that existing laws are sufficient to protect women from discrimination.
"I think we have reached a valuable position in society," explained Hartzler. "My message would be for women and girls to get an education and to take advantage of all the opportunities we have today."
The bill's fate likely will be fought out over party lines. Williams said that most of the supporters and all of the bill's co-sponsors are Democrats. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, has issued his endorsement of the bill, and several Democratic candidates for state office have followed suit, Williams said.
"The most important thing is for people to make personal contact with their representatives to express their support," Williams said. "When we hear from our constituents, we really do listen."
Several organizations have already offered their formal endorsement. The Business and Professional Women's Association originally approached Williams to introduce the measure last year. They are joined by a long list of Missouri groups that includes the League of Women Voters, the Missouri Human Rights Commission, AFL-CIO, Missouri NOW, and the American Association of University Women.
"I think, personally, we should go ahead with this and finally reach a conclusion," Kerri Buckley, coordinator for the Missouri Ratification Fund Campaign, said in an interview last week. "We need to ensure our protection and equality under the Constitution."
Buckley will direct several activities in the Kansas City area. She plans to address the Women's Political Caucus and make other public appearances. Also planned are a series of lectures and meetings through the Communiversity program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"It is really important that people go down in person to Jefferson City when the bill is on the docket," said Buckley, who is considering organizing a bus trip to the capital for area supporters.
As the 2000 election cycle heats up around the state, the ratification effort may become a more important issue. Williams said she hopes to make the bill a priority for Missouri Democrats.
"We are very proud of the support we are getting," Williams said. "We will work very hard to convey the feelings of the constituents to the legislature."