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Legal Experts Speak at Radcliffe Institute on 50th Anniversary of Equal Rights Amendment’s Senate Passage

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is located at 10 Garden Street.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is located at 10 Garden Street. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Emily Y. Feng, Contributing Writers

Leading legal experts discussed the decades-long campaign for the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment at a virtual panel hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Tuesday, which marked the 50th anniversary of the ERA’s passage through the U.S. Senate.

The event, titled “Equal Rights and Wrongs,” featured Columbia Law School professor Jamal K. Greene ’99 and Fordham University law professor Julie C. Suk ’97. Harvard history professor Jane Kamensky moderated the panel, which drew more than 200 attendees.

First introduced by the National Women’s Party in 1923, the ERA is a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights for all U.S. citizens regardless of sex. Though the ERA passed the Senate with a vote of 84 to 8 in 1972, it failed to receive ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures within a congressionally mandated seven-year window.

“The ERA seemed unstoppable,” Kamensky said in her introduction, quoting from a book Suk authored. “Spoiler alert: It wasn’t — unless, maybe it still is.”

Suk responded to critics who say that the ERA is redundant because the 14th Amendment provides protections against sex discrimination.

“It may be redundant,” she said. “But there are worse things than redundancy — among them, the lack of action by our executive, legislative, and judicial bodies to put into effect the equal rights safeguards already in the Constitution.”

Greene, a former Crimson sports editor, said the ERA should be interpreted as enumerating more rights than the 14th Amendment currently provides.

“There’s a broader interpretive inference that one can draw that makes the potential passage of an ERA not just consequential, but I think quite revolutionary,” he said. “Otherwise, what would be the point of passing it?”

Suk said the adoption of the ERA would be consistent with existing provisions in other democracies such as France, Germany, and Ukraine — whose constitutions guarantee equal rights for women and men.

In an interview after the event, Suk said current debates on the ERA boil down to disagreements over how it should be interpreted.

“It’s possible to interpret [the ERA] to mean that you always have to treat men and women the same, but it’s also possible to interpret that to mean you can recognize differences to address disadvantages that now exist,” Suk said.

“Can you treat people as equal while recognizing that they are not exactly the same in their needs and potentialities?” Kamensky said in an interview. “I think that’s still a live question.”

Tuesday’s panel was co-hosted by Schlesinger Library’s Long 19th Amendment Project, which supports scholarship on the efforts by American women to obtain the full rights of their citizenship.

Greene said “the ERA is worth fighting for” in his concluding remarks, and Suk expressed her agreement.

“We need a space in which people feel that the Constitution can be changed,” Suk said.

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