t was once the brainchild of American suffragette Alice Paul. It was thought to be a legislative no-brainer, a common sense amendment that passed through twenty-two state legislatures within its first year. Many legislators, activists, and journalists thought the amendment would earn the necessary three-quarters majority vote from the states needed to make it a constitutional right. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would have protected women’s rights across the United States, enshrining gender equality within the Constitution.
One cut-throat conservative firebrand had a different idea. Phyllis Schlafly, a Republican activist who first came into the political arena with a book supporting segregationist Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, mobilized a variety of like-minded women to lobby against the ERA. Her efforts paid off. Some states that ratified the amendment early on rescinded their votes. In 1978, the ratification period on the amendment was extended to 1982. It ultimately didn’t matter. By 1982, only thirty-five states had approved the amendment, three states short of the thirty-eight-state approval needed to secure constitutional ratification.
Ultimately, legal activists within the United States found different ways to protect gender equality within the law outside of passing the ERA. Operating through the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg led the charge to protect women’s rights through high court precedent; Civil Rights activists had used a similar strategy to set precedents that applied similar protections to racial equality a decade earlier. However, the lack of an equal rights amendment left the United States with a gap in protection for women’s rights not typically seen in other countries.
Across the world, other countries have made implementing protections for gender equality within the law look like a no-brainer. A 2015 study conducted by the World Policy Center found that the vast majority of countries with constitutions explicitly protect gender equality in some form; only a handful of world constitutions neglect to mention gender equality. The United States is one of the countries in this small handful; they join Libya and Yemen in offering only a general equality guarantee in their constitutions.
Of course, the only enshrining general equality in the constitution doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of concern for women’s rights. Norway, for example, also only protects general equality in its constitution. Like the United States, it does not offer an explicit plea to gender equality in its governing document. Norway, however, has a strong reputation for protecting women’s rights. Norway is the first-ranking country on the Human Development Index (HDI), an international development metric that considers women’s rights in its rankings. Further, in 2014, the country’s parliament passed an Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act aimed at improving the station of women and minorities and protecting these marginalized populations against discrimination.
In the United States, however, a lack of explicit constitutional guarantee for women’s rights is indicative of other struggles in protecting gender equality. Earlier this year, a World Bank report ranked countries based on their ability to provide equal legal rights for women. Six countries—Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden—achieved a perfect score. These six European countries primarily earned their perfect scores in gender equality by combatting domestic violence, improving working conditions for women, and providing paid leave policies.
Working conditions and leave policies are two areas where the United States currently struggles to attain equal rights for women. The World Bank report graded countries on 35 legal indicators of gender equality; the United States received lower marks in three specific areas, all related to work and leave. It received a lower score for its gender wage gap, which, despite the country’s 1963 Equal Pay Act, allows women to earn, on average, only 82% of what men earn. Further, the United States is one of only 9 countries that does not guarantee paid leave for mothers of newborns. Luxembourg and Sweden earned their high World Bank rankings for gender equality partially because of their progressive leave policies. Sweden allows both parents to take up to 16 months of paid parental leave with 80% salary replacement; similarly, Luxembourg allows four to six months of paid parental leave with proportionate salary replacement.
The U.S.’s leave policies (or lack thereof) fall far behind these European countries. The U.S. doesn’t guarantee the 14 weeks of leave recommended by the International Labor Organization, a standard heeded by many countries. The country also fails to offer any form of national paid parental leave. As a result, “having a child” was the United States’ lowest-scoring category for gender equality on the World Bank Report.
Though the ERA isn’t the U.S.’s only indicator of gender inequality, it’s a metric that has currently received national attention. Today, the United States in only one state away from ratifying the long-since stagnant constitutional amendment; Nevada voted to ratify the ERA in 2017, and Illinois became the 37th state to ratify in 2018. The movement to ratify an amendment that Phyllis Schafly had proclaimed “dead for now and forever in [the 20th century]” is slowly coming back to life.
However, whether the United States chooses to ratify the all-but-forgotten amendment in its fight for gender equality may not matter. Though an Equal Rights Amendment might be key to bringing some of the countries biggest gender issues to court, the country has several specific issues relevant to equal rights to work on whether an amendment is passed. It will be up the nation’s legislative bodies to ensure that these issues remain salient legal issues—the future of women’s rights in American depends on it.