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NC can make history by ratifying the ERA

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On Saturday there will be a gathering at the State Capitol to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote, a right realized with adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But the festivities will be muted by what hasn’t yet won passage — the Equal Rights Amendment.

North Carolina is in a position to put the ERA into the Constitution by becoming the 38th state to approve it, thus giving the amendment the necessary approval from three-fourths of the states. There are still issues about the deadline for approval of the amendment that passed Congress in 1972 and was to be ratified by the states by 1982. But the amendment’s backers, buoyed by recent ERA approvals in Nevada and Illinois, think there is now the political will to remove the deadline and there is legislation in Congress to do that.

Passage of the ERA would add to the Constitution these words: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

But first there needs to be a 38th state. Virginia came within one vote of approving the ERA this year and may well put it over the top after its legislative elections this fall. That means North Carolina still has a chance in this legislative session to make history for women’s rights, and perhaps atone for the state’s failing to vote in favor of the 19th Amendment until 1971.

Approving the ERA would also be a chance for state Republican lawmakers to compensate for the damage they’ve done to North Carolina’s national image by approving a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and approving discrimination against transgender people and others with the notorious House Bill 2.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, the chief sponsor of a bill to ratify the ERA, said, “Unfortunately we’ve been on the wrong side of issues in recent years. This is one way we can correct some of that.”

Of course Republicans, who control the state House and Senate, are almost certain to ignore this opportunity to send a powerful message about North Carolina’s commitment to equality. McKissick has sought Republicans co-sponsors without success.

Nonetheless, the ERA’s supporters are pushing for North Carolina to usher into the Constitution a proposed amendment that has wandered the nation’s political landscape for a half-century. Last week, women’s rights advocates held a news conference at the state Legislative Building to push for a vote. Local governments in North Carolina have passed resolutions in favor of the amendment. A group of organizations known as the Equal Rights Amendment North Carolina Alliance has purchased space on billboards promoting the ERA with this message: “4.2 million women live in North Carolina. 0 women have equal rights.”

That message will be news to many people. There’s a widespread perception that women’s rights are protected by the 14th Amendment and by civil rights laws. But those protections are not enough. Some judges, such as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have stressed that sex discrimination was not mentioned in the 14th Amendment and administrative policies can undercut rights that are not explicitly granted.

Women need the power of a constitutional amendment to ensure their protection from discrimination in the form of lower wages and harassment. Enshrining the equal rights of women in the Constitution should not be difficult. That it has proven so reveals the persistence of bias against women and demonstrates the need for the amendment.

North Carolina should make this long-denied right an enduring one.