Fair wage:
Equal rights translate to economic justice for all U.S. women

It always surprises me that the idea of an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution causes such vicious anger in hard-right Americans.

I've received more electronic hate mail about the ERA than almost any other subject I write about. Occasionally, though, someone asks the legitimate question of why such an amendment is needed and why there's growing momentum to complete ratification of it.

Congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm explained it best in 1970, when the current ERA was first presented as a joint resolution in Congress.

The ERA, she said, "provides for equality under law for both men and women" and "represents one of the most clear-cut opportunities we are likely to have to declare our faith in the principles that shaped our Constitution. It provides a legal basis for attack on the most subtle, most pervasive and most institutionalized form of prejudice that exists. Discrimination against women, solely on the basis of their sex, is so widespread that it seems to many persons normal, natural and right."

Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the U.S. House. She served New York's 12th District from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she was the first black to run for president.

Chisholm made it clear that the Fifth and 14th Amendments guaranteeing due process of law are not clear when it comes to gender discrimination. There are, she said, "countless ambiguities and inconsistencies" that only the ERA can fix.

The Supreme Court last month, for instance, refused, on a technicality, to allow a woman $3 million in back pay after years of being paid less than males at a Goodyear plant in Alabama. A supervisor for more than 20 years, she discovered on retirement that she had earned nearly 25 percent less than male supervisors less senior than she.

The ERA would prevent such gross economic injustice and require that federal courts address economic gender discrimination directly. With women still earning from 74 cents to 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, the ERA would have a vast economic impact on the lives of women in poverty working to earn a decent living.

The ERA would help settle inequalities in insurance, reproductive rights, pensions and Social Security, which still treats women as dependents, giving them only 72 percent of their deceased husband's benefits.

The National Organization for Women points out that nearly 75 percent of the nation's 4 million elderly poor are women. Older men have almost twice the income of older women, due solely to economic gender discrimination. The largest, growing category of homeless people in America is single mothers.

We need an ERA for fundamental dollars-and-cents reasons. We can no longer tolerate a gender-based economic underclass and the moral shame it casts on our society.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
June 25, 2007