One more to go: Illinois ratifies Equal Rights Amendment

Illinois lawmakers have voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, affirming women's rights under the U.S. Constitution and putting the legislation just one state away from potentially taking effect. The passage comes 36 years after the original deadline set by Congress.

Opponents of the amendment say that voting on it now is merely a symbolic gesture; some also say the protections it outlined in 1972 already apply to women today. But supporters say it's important - now more than ever - for the government to state clearly that women and men have equal rights under the law.

The Illinois House approved the ERA on Wednesday night, just before the end of its regular session. There were hugs and high-fives as Democratic legislators, including a number of female lawmakers, stood, cheered and hugged as the result was announced.

"It was close," reports Rachel Otwell of NPR Illinois. "Members booed as it appeared it might have fallen short. But then, two more legislators voted affirmatively. It passed with a single vote to spare."

After the vote, Illinois state Rep. Juliana Stratton -- who had spoken during the debate about discrimination she has faced as a black woman, tweeted, "I'm so proud to take this historic vote to pass the ERA in Illinois! This is the moment it happened!"

"Look at all this love," a lawmaker can be heard saying in a video from the House floor that was posted by Rep. Litesa Wallace. "We just made some history."

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The Illinois Senate voted to ratify the ERA in April.

In the 1970s, the ERA fell just three states short of ratification — a result that stood despite the original 1979 deadline being extended to 1982.

Wednesday's approval was a stark turnabout for Illinois, the state from which conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum, had mounted her fierce opposition to the ERA in the 1970s. When the amendment was near death in 1979, Schlafly threw an anti-Equal Rights Amendment dinner in Washington, with Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as honored guests.

Despite the lapse of the original deadline, the ERA's supporters say Congress can revive the amendment.

"The ACLU has long supported the ERA and the effort to explicitly guarantee all women equal rights under the Constitution," Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, said in a statement to NPR. "Years in the making, yesterday's vote in Illinois brings us one step closer. We look forward to more progress being made, and ensuring that women are explicitly protected against discrimination, [regardless of race, sexual orientation or socio-economic background]."

The ERA's recent approval by Nevada and Illinois sets up the possibility that one of the 13 remaining states that have not ratified the ERA can now claim to have cast the decisive vote. Most Southern states have not ratified the amendment; neither have Utah or Arizona.

"Virginia could - and should - put the Equal Rights Amendment over the top," Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said in a tweet on Thursday.

But the federal amendment failed anew in Virginia's legislature earlier this year, to chants of "Shame!" from backers who had come to the state Capitol in Richmond to push for ratification.

Until recently, it had been 40 years since any U.S. state had voted to ratify the amendment. But that changed last year, when Nevada ratified the ERA.

"The #MeToo movement has underscored the importance of strong legal protections for women's rights, and our resolve to secure these Constitutional guarantees is unwavering," said National Organization of Women President Toni Van Pelt, in a statement to NPR.

Van Pelt added, "There's still more to be done to correct this shameful failure of our Constitution."

The decades-long delay in ratification isn't the first slowdown for the ERA, which Congress approved in March of 1972 - 49 years after it was first introduced.

The constitutional amendment was initially put forth by Alice Paul, an economist and organizer who helped to found the Woman's National Party — and who marched for the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. Paul worked with another prominent suffragist, Crystal Eastman, on the ERA language.

"Alice Paul actually drafted the original Equal Rights Amendment and its updated text later in the '40s," Jennifer Krafchik, acting executive director of the Belmont-Paul National Monument, told NPR in 2016. "So she spent her entire life, really, working for women's rights, women's equality. She worked for equal pay. She worked for the right for women to serve on juries."

Paul died in 1977, having seen the ERA adopted by Congress — but not ratified by the states.