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With barriers to gender equity falling, it's time to ratify the ERA

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Shannon Drury
Shannon Drury: Opponents of the ERA feared that it would lead to women serving in combat.
Submitted photo

Shannon Drury, former president of Minnesota NOW, is a writer, at-home parent and community activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women's Press, blogs at www.theradicalhousewife.com and is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network

Last week, leaders of the U.S. military announced the end of the ban on women serving in combat roles in our nation's armed forces.

The loud BAM! you heard as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered this announcement was neither an official 21-gun salute, nor the thumping of thousands of women's helmets as they celebrated the opportunity to be recognized for work they have already done in Iraq and are doing in Afghanistan. It was the sound of yet another barrier falling in the long path to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment. 

  A brief ERA primer: The original amendment was written by Alice Paul, the toughest of the activists now known as American feminism's First Wave. Paul's street protests would be called Occupy Women's Suffrage today, but the passage of the 19th Amendment didn't satisfy her. She penned a companion amendment that read: "Equality of rights under the law not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." 

This Equal Rights Amendment gained little traction during Paul's day, but in American feminism's Second Wave, it was given new life. With bipartisan support, the ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. First Ladies Pat Nixon, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter all lobbied for it. Passage seemed inevitable until Phyllis Schlafly stepped into the fray.

Schlafly, whose Eagle Forum organization bills itself as "leaders of the pro-family movement since 1972," portrayed the Equal Rights Amendment as a tool of radical feminists bent on dismantling every aspect of American life. Her tactics were incredibly effective, and the ERA fell three states short of its ratification deadline in 1982.

How did she do it? By preying on the public's fear of the following bugaboos:

Unisex bathrooms. If you are a parent of small children, you know that these already exist: Called "family bathrooms," they recognize that children and parents do not always socialize in public in neatly matched gender pairs. Even restaurants as shockingly outre as Noodles & Company have done away with gendered stick people on their single restroom doors, allowing anyone who requires a toilet to use one. Radical.

Same-sex marriages.  Currently, nine states have legalized same-sex marriage.  California's marriage law's still in limbo, pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if you feel that same-sex marriage is an affront to your religious beliefs, you must admit that Massachusetts hasn't exactly fallen into the Atlantic since it was legalized there in 2003. In fact, the formerly cursed Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. (Note to Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature: The Twins haven't won a Series since 1991. Hint, hint.)

Women in combat.  Panetta's announcement is a formal recognition of what has been going on for years now: Women are already on the front lines, albeit unofficially in "support" roles. Women's presence in combat situations is a necessary reality in a military strained to the limit by a decade spent fighting two long wars. What these women haven't had until now is the recognition, leadership advancement, and benefits that officially recognized combat experience confers. Women, especially military women, are a lot tougher than Schlafly ever imagined. 

Husbands not supporting their wives financially.  Yes, they really worried about this. 

America in 2013 looks a lot different from America in 1972 — and would be nearly unrecognizable to Alice Paul — but the need for gender equality in our nation's guiding document remains constant. Let's take this fresh opportunity to right a  historic wrong and restart the ratification process for the ERA.