(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

State constitution would bar discrimination on the basis of gender as the original ERA, but also offer protection in many more ways.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed amendment to the US Constitution which would guarantee equal legal rights regardless a person’s sex, was ratified in Wisconsin on April 25, 1972, less than a year after Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) was born. 

“And who would’ve thought that here we are today nearly 50 years later and we are still fighting for equality,” Subeck said of the ERA, which was not ratified by enough states to become part of the highest law in the land. 

While the national fight over the ERA continues, Wisconsin Democrats put forward their own Equal Rights Amendment for the state constitution, that would not only guarantee equal rights on the basis of sex, but would also guarantee those rights on the basis of “gender identity, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, age, ancestry, or any other immutable characteristics.”

“Too often in our state and in our nation, rights are treated as something to be given out or taken away by whatever politicians or whatever groups control our state or local government,” Subeck said during a press conference on Monday, which was International Women’s Day. “If we are ever going to achieve true freedom and equality, we have to guarantee equal rights for all of our residents regardless of who you are, regardless of where you come from, or regardless of who you love.”

Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield) said the lack of legal protections has impacted her own professional life. During the press conference she stated that at one point she was passed over for a promotion.

“The reason that I was given was they knew it would be difficult for me to balance these additional responsibilities with children at home,” Rodriguez said. “This position was given to a well-qualified male colleague who had children just a few years older than mine.”

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While much has changed in the 50 years since the national ERA was first passed by Congress, Rodriguez said her story is an example of how “we still struggle with discrimination today.”

“Although I left that job and succeeded elsewhere, this is one of many examples, many more egregious than mine, as to why we need to ensure equal protection,” Rodriguez said.

On Monday, the proposal was sent out to the rest of the Legislature for cosponsorship. Wisconsin Democrats submitted a similar bill during the last legislative session, but it was one of more than 100 bills that died when Republicans adjourned last April and did not return to Madison until the new session began in January. No Republicans signed up to be co-sponsors last year, but Subeck said, “I’m hoping perhaps they’ll get there.”

“Certainly I think that we should all agree that all of our residents and all of our constituents are deserving of equal rights and equal protection under the law,” Subeck said. “That should not be a partisan issue.”

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The original ERA was passed by Congress and sent to the states in March, 1972, with the stipulation that three-fourths of the states must ratify it within seven years. One year later, 30 of the 38 states needed had done so. But conservative activist Phylis Schlafly, who led the STOP ERA movement, successfully turned the Republican legislators against the amendment, slowing ratification to a crawl. By 1977, 35 states had ratified the amendment, but five states rescinded their earlier votes in support. 

After decades of inaction, the ERA was ratified by Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in 2020, initiating a court challenge to the original seven-year deadline. Last Friday a federal district judge ruled that the deadline was valid and the new ratifications were “too late to count.”