It is difficult to understand why mainstream feminism is returning yet again to the scene of its greatest disaster, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), until you realize that it has nowhere else to go. Now, almost eighty years after the first ERA was first formally introduced, a new ERA will be considered by Congress. It is basically the same document that was defeated in 1982 after a decade of struggle that exhausted mainstream feminism. Only, this time, the bill conspicuously lacks the seven-year deadline on ratification by the individual States which doomed the prior crusade.
The bill is a simple one. It reads, in total,
"SECTION 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
SECTION 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
SECTION 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification."
There are many reasons to oppose the new ERA, not the least of which is that the Constitution already applies equally to both genders. What organizations like NOW are hoping to achieve is not equality, however. They wish to sneak in some agenda items through the back door. Consider abortion. If the ERA were to pass, NOW would move with blinding speed to contest the current U.S. Supreme Court stance and claim that the amended Constitution required States to fund abortions. (I am pro-choice but I don't believe pro-life taxpayers should be forced to fund what they believe to be murder.) Moreover, it is absurd to argue that women today are slighted by the law. They are privileged by it through policies such as affirmative action and laws against verbal harassment. It is men who need to acquire equal rights under the law.
The loudly-announced new ERA has not a chance of being ratified. Its reintroduction is a desperate attempt on the part of mainstream feminism to return to the glory days of sisterhood in the '60s and '70s, when women marched arm-in-arm in the street. It is an attempt to hoist a flag everyone will salute, to find an issue around which a splintered movement can coalesce. But feminism as we knew in the latter part of the 20th century is dead by its own hand.
In 1973, feminism won a tremendous victory when the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade ensured legal access to abortion. Just a year before, the ERA had passed the House of Representatives and the Senate after having been unsuccessfully reintroduced in Congress every year from 1923 to that date. In March 1978, one hundred thousand demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C., to express their determined support for ratification within the seven-year limit. A year later, in the streets of Chicago, ninety thousand supporters rallied. Those were heady times. Then came the defeat and the bitterness. Then came the backlash of anger and frustration that allowed anti-male political correctness to dominate feminism. It became an ideology of rage.
Since the early '80s, feminism has determinedly sabotaged itself. There was the Great Porn War of the '80s and '90s. During countless skirmishes, feminists who believed in freedom of speech stood toe-to-toe with their counterparts who believed everything was a matter of male oppression. (If men of that day even belched, it was an expression of the "rape culture.") Eventually, gender feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon refused to share a stage with women who argued on any grounds for the right to publish pornography. At that moment, I knew the feminist movement would not be able to regroup should abortion rights ever come under sustained attack. The most innovative voices in the movement -- most notably Camille Paglia -- were relegated to the status of "anti-feminist" because they disagreed. What happened to the feminism in which every woman's voice should be heard?
When Clinton came to office, mainstream feminism (now largely PC) gorged itself on political favor and refused to bite the hand that fed it. If Paula Jones said she was sexually harassed, then she was automatically "trailer trash." A similarly dismissive attitude was taken by "NOW & Co." toward every woman who appealed to the principles of justice that they themselves had embedded into society.
"NOW & Co." have no more credibility left. The public-trough gravy train is stopping. Instead, they are facing a hostile Republican and conservative backlash that wants to remedy the incredible excesses of political correctness. What is their reaction? They wish to go back to the issue that galvanized feminists into marching in the streets in their tens of thousands.
It is bad strategy but it may be the only move they have left on the chessboard. It is bad strategy because this is the 21st century. The circumstances are entirely different and much less favorable to the passage of the ERA than in 1982. When I speak of the ERA to a younger generation, they tend to roll their eyes as if to say, "Get a life!" The new generation does not want to deal with our old issues. They don't want to hear about the Vietnam War or the Nixon tape scandals or the ERA. They want to deal with their own unique circumstances. And more power to 'em.
So...what should be done about the new ERA initiative? How should feminists (like me) who wish for true equality under the law, not privilege, respond to this sad attempt of PC feminism to return to the heyday of the '60s? Do nothing.
Wendy McElroy is editor of www.ifeminists.com and the editor of "Freedom, Feminism, and the State" (Holmes & Meier 1992), "XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography" (St. Martin's, 1995) and "Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women." She lives with her husband in Canada and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.