After beating the rest of the country in giving women the right to vote, Arizona has trailed the pack in passing the Equal Rights Amendment.
Arizona women led the charge for the right to vote in 1912, the year the territory became a state — and a full eight years before the rest of the nation granted women the vote. In 1923, it would seem an easy victory for Arizona women when the first effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment into the U.S. Constitution was introduced.
Ninety-seven years later the fight goes on.
“We have made great progress, but that progress could be overturned and reversed and is being overturned and reversed constantly, and so the only way to assure this is to put it into the Constitution,” Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said.
Nationwide interest in the ERA was re-kindled during the 1970s and 1980s, a byproduct of the “second wave” of the women’s right movement.
“We were going great gangbusters at first to get the ERA ratified,” Steele said. “It was state after state after state and then all of a sudden it just got stopped. And it was because a group of very conservative women led by Phyllis Schlafly just wanted women to be home, barefoot and pregnant and making apple pie for their husbands in the kitchen. And they thought that if women had equal rights, that the family would be destroyed.”
In Arizona, the ERA was supported by the first female majority leader of a state Senate, Republican Sen. Sandra Day O’Connor. She helped introduce it to state Legislature where it failed to be ratified. She then joined efforts to get the amendment passed in a statewide referendum. That too failed. Even O’Connor, who of course went on to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, couldn’t shake the boogeymen with which Schlafly and her group had so artfully surrounded the ERA.
“It seems to just be really emotional and not based, in my opinion, on any sort of rational or logic,” Steele said. “And once the counter-arguments start again by Republicans, often Republican women, it digresses into if Arizona passes it, it is going to lead to unisex bathrooms … that it’s going to lead into more abortions. I mean, it’s really crazy but I think what happened is they go for and believe in these emotionally laden arguments that I don’t think there’s any rational evidence to support.”
That reaction to the ERA surprised even one member from across the aisle – Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican.
“They somehow or another tied it into abortion and I could never get that squared away as to why that was,” Brophy McGee said. “And that they were insistent upon it, which was just so surprising. That’s why I think it hasn’t progressed and I do think there is some resistance to it from very, very conservative members of my caucus.”
The latest battle
Steele discovered that the hard way last year, when she was hoping to make Arizona the 38th state needed to ratify the ERA.
“I was just sweating blood to try to get this to happen, so that Arizona could be the 38th state,” Steele said. “We could not bring it to a vote, but we finally brought it to a debate on the floor. And with every Republican that spoke out against it, it showed exactly why we need the ERA in our Constitution. I mean, they just proved the point every time they spoke, and it was just ridiculous to see such pushback against having men and women equal under the law. Let’s move forward and let’s give women the same rights under the law that men have, period end of question, end of story.”
So, Steele attempted a procedural move on the Senate floor to force a vote on it.
“We had advocates with our ERA banners in the gallery and (President of the Senate) Karen Fann came up to me and said, ‘What are you up to? I know you’re up to something,’” Steele said.
Steele claims Fann censored her floor speech, an accusation the president denied on the floor.
“It was heartbreaking, because everybody up in the gallery was ready for me to make this motion and I didn’t do it and I was dying inside because they didn’t understand why I didn’t do it,” Steele said.
This year, the hope that Arizona would be the 38th and deciding vote on the ERA’s ratification became moot when the Virginia Legislature ratified the amendment.
“They were able to flip their entire Legislature to a Democratic-controlled Legislature and the first thing that they did in January of this year was to ratify the ERA,” Steele said. “And meanwhile, we were stuck with the same Republicans that would not allow us to even bring it up to a vote. There was no way that we could get it through.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks
Brophy McGee, the Republican colleague who supported Steele’s move, admitted she “ran into a buzz saw when I signed onto that.”
“I was thinking it was kind of the next logical step and the buzz saw was from members of my caucus that did not view it as benign or the next logical step,” she added.
Like Brophy McGee, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita also co-sponsored the resolution in favor of the ERA, but voted against suspending the rules to bring the matter to a vote.
Besides having a Legislature dead-set against approving the ERA, Brophy McGee said there was now another obstacle from on-high hindering any further attempts to get a vote on the floor. The obstacle was thrown up by none other the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In February, during a public discussion at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Ginsburg said Virginia’s vote came too late. The U.S. Congress had set a 1982 deadline for the states to ratify the amendment.
“I would like to see a new beginning,” Ginsburg told the audience. “I’d like it to start over.”
Her remarks seem to support the U.S. Department of Justice argument that not only had the deadline to ratify the amendment expired decades ago, but also that some states had since rescinded their support.
“There’s too much controversy about late comers, Virginia, long after the deadline passed,” Ginsburg said.
On February 13, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove the 1982 deadline. With Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he is not a supporter of the ERA, it’s uncertain where the bill goes from there.
Meanwhile, Virginia, Illinois and Nevada, the three states to put the ERA over the goal line, have filed a lawsuit against the National Archivist, ordering it to ratify the amendment. The National Archives and Records Administration said it would abide by the Justice Department’s opinion that the deadline for ratification has long passed.
Steele said she will continue the work to keep the ERA fight alive in Arizona and is looking at younger members of the Legislature to change the current status quo. It’s a sentiment echoed by her colleague Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.
“Arizona is now within the top three states of female representation, and when I would speak to female groups, I would mention that, to which there’d be applause and people would be excited,” Rios said. “And I’d quickly follow up with the fact that it’s not about just electing women — that you need to elect the right women.
“This issue, like many others, does not change until you change the players. I mean, we’ve got a lot of old dogs at the Legislature and I will include myself in that pack, but along with that comes old mindsets and unfortunately, I don’t see those mindsets on this issue changing. What I find most promising is the younger, more open-minded legislators that are coming into the fold now. That’s the hope down the road that they’ll be able to carry the ball on these pieces of legislation that we haven’t gotten.”