In light of the 100th anniversary of Congress passing the 19th Amendment and enshrining women’s right to vote, this week’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment—or, rather, the lack thereof.
As explained by Oliver, the ERA, which currently sits in constitutional purgatory, lays out in simple language that rights cannot be “denied or abridged” by the U.S. government on account of sex. It has absolutely nothing to do with alimony, child custody, abortion or lessening the security of working-class women.
But despite being under consideration since 1923 and narrowly passing in 1982, the lack of a fully ratified equal rights amendment means that women are still denied equal rights under the Constitution (unbeknownst to the 80% of Americans who believe that such an act is already in the Constitution).
When Congress approved of the ERA, it was given a deadline of March 22, 1979 (!), to receive ratification by 38 states. Things looked hopeful then—it received bipartisan support and was endorsed by Nixon, of all people. But the momentum came to a halt when Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the religious rights advocacy group STOP ERA (and referred to as a “pre-internet internet troll” by Oliver), began rallying conservatives to oppose the ERA after 28 states ratified the endeavor.
Schafly began spreading misinformation about the amendment, claiming it would outlaw sex-segregated bathrooms and expand access to abortion. Her skewed and ill-informed take on the ERA, which revolved around the jeopardization of gender roles under the amendment, led five states to rescind their ratifications, and though Congress extended the deadline by three years, the ERA was narrowly defeated by three votes short of its goal.
The dangers of not having an equal rights amendment embedded in the Constitution are already unfolding in real time, Oliver said. Not only did Congress let the Violence Against Women Act expire in December, but the Trump administration also recently rescinded more than 20 Obama-era policy guidelines on Title IX anti-discrimination laws.
“A constitutional amendment like the ERA is more stable because constitutional amendments are safe from Donald Trump, unlike Melania’s hopes and dreams and the American flag he gets close to,” Oliver stated. “Constitutional amendments are something he cannot easily ruin.”
Oliver poses an upside to the debate: The country has never been closer to the ERA being enshrined in the Constitution. Nevada and Illinois both ratified the ERA in the last couple of years, increasing the amount of advocating states to one short of its original goal. Legal scholars also believe Congress can change the deadline again or eliminate it entirely, and bipartisan co-sponsored bills to do just that have been introduced in the House and the Senate this year.
Sure, there are issues with the ERA, Oliver notes—it does not take into account the private sector (meaning it wouldn’t be able to tap into the wage gap, among other issues), for example—but it acts as a sure-fire safeguard preventing existing laws from sliding backward.
“Equality for women should be a basic principle of our society, and if you think it already is, great—all the more reason to write it down,” Oliver says. “If you think it isn’t, then we badly need the ERA.”
Oliver urges that we’re one state away from reaching the amendment’s original goal of 38 ratifications, and any of the remaining 13 states has the chance to change how history views them forever.
He is indifferent to which state should move forward, but he urges Virginia to consider taking the leap: “You’re the birthplace of Chris Brown, Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson, so frankly, you fucking owe America this.”
Watch the clip below.