If they’re willing to put their lives on the line, then we’re willing to say they deserve a chance. Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary, on ordering that the ban on women in combat be lifted.
After a period of transition, women will be as eligible to serve as men in military positions, including combat. Assignments will be made on the basis of skill, not the contents of one’s underpants. This is a seismic shift that is much bigger than the military.
In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order for the integration of men of color into the military. In 2011, President Obama certified a congressional bill repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which barred out non-heterosexuals from serving in the military. In both cases, more shifts followed in the broader culture.
So that moment is here for women. Will we take it?
With the removal of the ban on women in combat, one of the primary objections used to halt ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment has been — poof — erased. This is a strategic time to renew and redouble efforts to put these beautiful words into the Constitution:
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
For those not familiar with the ERA, there are two primary ways to get it inserted into the Constitution. First, Congress can reintroduce the Equal Rights Amendment, as is done every year with the help of champions like Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who joins other allies on Capitol Hill in being consistently awesome on this issue. After Congress adopts it, two-thirds of the states would need to ratify the ERA.
Another way to equality for women in the Constitution would be to have three additional states ratify the Equal Rights Amendment that was ratified by 35 states in the ’70s. Under this strategy, you typically see folks pouring the most energy into the following three unratified states: Florida, Illinois and Virginia. While Congress imposed a 1982 deadline for ratification of this version of the ERA, many constitutional scholars believe that this deadline would not be found valid in the courts — particularly because the Madison Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in 1789 and adopted in 1992.
Both strategies present an opportunity to finally secure a constitutional guarantee against sex discrimination (ironically, the vast majority of people in this country believes such a thing already exists). Under both strategies, state legislatures will be required to act. While support from the president and others would be nice, symbolically important to be sure, know that majority votes within state legislatures is where the decision-making power rests.
So what can we do? Well, I’d argue that women’s rights activists should take a page out of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, playbook. There were mainstream non-profit organizations that made arguments on Capitol Hill, and hosted lobby days, and sent action alerts, and no doubt, those actions helped. But I would also argue that the success of that repeal also had everything to do with activists who did not wait for permission from mainstream organizations, who were willing to take more radical actions, including non-violent civil disobedience as individuals and leveraging smaller, feistier grassroots groups with less investment in Washington culture. While the strategies are not the same, and it’s probably not practical to expect groups like these to work together for a variety of reasons, they are complimentary efforts building toward a common goal on the activist side. What we need now in the push for constitutional equality are more voices, not fewer.
Pressuring decision makers is great, but we should also think bigger. We should not just demand that decision makers do something, we need to be the decision makers ourselves.
Run for office. If you want to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, truly, I believe, the best thing you could do is to re-orient your thinking right now to say to yourself and others: “I’m thinking about running for my state legislature.” (This is a great strategy no matter where you live.) We need more women in public office for so many reasons.
For too long the Equal Rights Amendment has been represented as a time way back when, when some really terrific activists almost got us there. History is important. It’s important to teach and important to know. But even more important than the history is the doing, the now, the activists who are on fire (many of whom are part of the history, actually). When we sit around a fire, we look at the flames and not the logs. What we need now in the push for constitutional equality is more urgency, less history. Delightfully, Secretary Panetta has given us a boost we can choose to take now.
This post is dedicated to one of my favorite activists on fire, Zoe Nicholson, who fasted for 37 days in the Illinois statehouse demanding ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 — and continues, to this day, to focus relentlessly on what we and you can do now.