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Georgia Senate looks at Equal Rights Amendment
Renee Unterman 2018.jpg
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford

A group of state senators wants Georgia to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which is a long-debated amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would outlaw gender discrimination on the federal level.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, are leading the effort to ratify the amendment, which has been gaining some bipartisan support in the Georgia Senate.

The ERA was approved by Congress in 1972 but needs to be ratified by 38 states before it can be added to the Constitution. So far, 37 states have ratified it, including Nevada and Illinois within the past two years.

There is some debate about whether previous state ratifications will count toward the total, though. When Congress passed the amendment in 1972, lawmakers set a deadline for states to ratify it by 1979, then extended that deadline until 1982. The constitutionality of that extension has been questioned, said Carl Cavalli, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia.

In the 1970s, the amendment gained support but faced resistance from conservatives, with the opposing movement largely led by writer and activist Phyllis Schlafly.

“Back then, there was opposition by conservatives who, pretty much successfully, rallied to stop further ratification, and we even saw several states rescind their ratification,” Cavalli said. “…They really thought that it would do more harm to women than good.”

Cavalli said some historical arguments against the amendment included concerns that the amendment would interfere with women taking custody of children or would denigrate the role of women who chose to be homemakers.

Two versions of the resolution, one proposed by Democrats and one by Republicans, have been introduced. The two resolutions are identical, and both are gaining support from legislators of both parties.

Unterman said gender equality was an issue on her mind as many women were removed from leadership positions when the state legislature’s new session began in January. The general conversation on gender issues is changing, too, and women want to effect change, she said.

“There’s a big movement with women in particular in the last couple of years realizing the importance of having equality and parity and fairness in all the laws,” Unterman said. “Women in particular are motivated now, and thank goodness they are.”

Men and people on both sides of the political aisle are noticing the shift, Unterman said.

Leigh Miller of Flowery Branch, the second vice chair for the Hall County Democratic Party, said that while “any time is a good time” for the amendment to be ratified, the current political climate may make people more receptive to the idea.

“Right now, there is a lot of focus on women’s issues,” Miller said. “I think that that has a lot to do with the #MeToo movement, which has sort of given women a platform to be more brave to talk about things that affect them. It has also shed light on income disparity between men and women in the workplace.”

Miller said, as a mother of three daughters, she thinks having a constitutional amendment to address gender discrimination will help future generations.

“As our leadership changes and we vote different politicians in and out of our system, they have the power to change laws,” Miller said. “If we don’t ratify an amendment that protects gender equality, then we leave the door open for future politicians to take away our rights.”

Cavalli said that, while the climate had changed since the amendment was approved by Congress in 1972, women’s progress may not be the deciding factor in the amendment passing now.

“Women have advanced in the last 45 or more years and have more opportunities that they would have never seen even as late as the 1970s,” Cavalli said. “On the other hand, we are in both a more conservative and more partisan-divided era, and ratifying constitutional amendments is designed to require overwhelming agreement.”

Other federal laws do address discrimination, including Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs or activities.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta said when introducing the resolution on the Senate floor Jan. 30 that the constitutional amendment would ensure protection if laws are changed.

“I’ve heard from folks, why do we need it? We have laws in place. To be clear, we have achieved much through federal civil rights laws,” Jordan said. “But laws can be changed. … This isn’t about giving women special rights. It is about equal rights.”

Cavalli said the amendment would reinforce existing federal laws.

“It would add extra weight to claims for equality, equal treatment, equal pay. For those who oppose it, it might be something they see as adding extra complications,” Cavalli said. “… You’re talking about changing the Constitution, which supersedes any and all state laws and federal action, for that matter.”

Miller, who works as an attorney, said she thought it would help ease the burden on courts dealing with discrimination cases.

“It would clear up federal law in gender discrimination and would allow the court system to process those claims a lot more easily and quickly,” she said. “That would free up some of our overburdened court systems.”

The proposal has been referred to the Senate’s judiciary committee and its effects are being researched. On Thursday, the Republican caucus heard from constitutionalists about the amendment, Unterman said.

Unterman said the main concern she has heard from those opposed to the resolution is that the amendment would loosen abortion restrictions. She said she is opposed to abortion, and easing restrictions is not the intention of the proposal.

Matt Smith, the chairman of the Hall County Republican Party, said he was awaiting more information about the possible effects if the amendment were to be ratified.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.