Where Do We Go From Here? The ERA in the 21st Century

Last weekend I attended a conference at Roger Williams University titled "The ERA in the 21st Century." The conference brought together accomplished scholars, national activists, and twenty-something feminists like myself that are still learning to navigate their own paths to equal rights.  The conference aimed to open a dialogue about the place of the Equal Rights Amendment in American culture and politics.  The ERA galvanized the Second Wave feminist movement, though it failed ratification in enough states to become an amendment in 1982.  The ERA has also been a part of Third Wave feminism, with Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards naming it as an essential component of a feminist future in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000). However, most people of my generation do not know anything about the ERA, its history, or its relevance to their lives.

The truth is, there are myriad reasons why the ERA is important today. The most basic of these reasons is that the 19th Amendment is the only Constitutional protection that guarantees women’s rights in the United States. The 14th Amendment—which so many people believe protects against sex discrimination—is subject to judicial interpretation.  In 2010, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that sex discrimination was not protected by the Constitution. All of the current legislation (including Title IX and the Civil Rights Act) are vulnerable to roll back—something that is painfully evident in the current climate in which campus sexual assault is an epidemic, pay equity is stalled, and abortion rights are becoming more restricted making it nearly impossible for some women to access a federally“protected” right.

I was at the conference to hear about how we could move forward. I was blown away by the feminist star power of the women in the room— within a span of eight hours I got to talk about abortion rights with Jennifer Baumgardner—one of my feminist idols—and was able to eavesdrop on a conversation between two of the strongest feminist voices in the country, Ellie Smeal and Terry O’Neil.  It seemed likely that given the guest list, some decisive game plan was going to be presented. But by the end of the second day of the conference, I was left more confused than empowered.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there is a divide between feminist generations. The Keynote Speakers, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, who are recognized as leading voices of the Third Wave, encouraged young women to find their way into feminism from whatever vantage point inspired them.   The ERA was one of those potential entry points, but they acknowledged that young feminists might be more inspired by more tangible goals: marriage equality,trans issues, abortion rights, campus safety. During the audience Q&A, conference goers nearly completely ignored what had been said during the Keynote Address, an Address that spoke to me loudly and clearly, and instead used the time to assert themselves in telling us why the ERA was of paramount and central importance: period.  Perhaps the audience expected a concrete pro-ERA message. But the ERA’s heavy hitters alienated their young audience by failing to bridge their agenda with ours,which was something that could have been accomplished via the messages presented by Baumgardner and Richards. They missed out on a great opportunity to gain insight into what the important issues for today’s young feminists, like me, look like.

During an “ERA Roundtable,” Baumgardner’s suggestions about how to galvanize young women were overwhelmed by another panelist’s insistence that they need to be told that they inherited a poor deal. Educating the younger generations is important, but telling them what issues they should care about is not; there is power in offering them the tools to seek out the issues that speak to them the most.  That is what will engage them in grassroots efforts for feminist change and, ultimately, equal rights. I felt worn down and discouraged by this disconnect, that really seemed to coalesce around age, and I remained silent during the discussions because fear of being targeted by what my friends and I dubbed the “OGs", or "Original Gangsters" of the Women’s Movement.

Young feminists are the future of the movement and we have ideas and opinions that have value and deserve respect. While I truly appreciate and understand all of the tireless efforts put in to advance women to where we are now, I also see that the climate of feminism is changing and we have a lot of work to do if we want to mobilize toward any kind of real feminist activism in our future.  We need to start over, because the tactics that have been used for the past forty years aren't going to work for today's young women.

I have three takeaways from this conference.  First, there is a divide between feminists and it is being perpetuated from within the movement by a lack of respect and understanding for each other.  Second the ERA is an important piece of legislation that would write equality for women into the Constitution in a way that cannot be subjected to judicial interpretation or legislative rollbacks.  And third, young feminists need a toolkit for future action, not a lecture about the failed actions of the past.

Colleen is founder of Bahjingo.com, a blog and collection of activists who work within their community to engage young people in gender inequality issues.

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Colleen Giles
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