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Illinois Legislature opening day

Senate President John Cullerton leads the Illinois Senate on the opening day of the legislative session Jan. 11 at the state Capitol in Springfield.

Illinois could, at least in part, right a wrong it has promulgated since 1972.

That's if the Illinois House follows the Senate's lead, garners the necessary 71 votes and, finally, ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). 

It was Illinois that gave the country right-wing firebrand Phyllis Schlafly. And it was Schlafly who was the executioner of the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would have guaranteed equal civil rights to women, and kept Illinois General Assembly from action.

In a lot of ways, Illinois owns the failure of the ERA to garner the support of the 38 states required to amend the U.S. Constitution. Schlafly is gone. But the same can't be said for the disparities in pay and access to basic civil rights. Women represent 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics — a massive increase from Schlafly's time. But women earn just $0.82 for every dollar earned by a man, according to Pew Research Center. 

By and large, Schlafly's gripes have gone the way of the dodo.

ERA would expose women to the draft, Schlafly argued throughout the 1970s, when Congress first sent the ERA to the states for ratification. The draft — rightly or wrongly — has gone dormant, a last-case resort for politicians who've found it politically expedient to wage war solely with troops who enlist on their own accord. And, in the past decade, women are playing a significantly larger role in combat operations, anyway.

ERA would slight housewives, Schlafly complained, arguing that it posed a threat to "traditional gender roles." Yet, with or without ERA, economic forces have torn down those traditions and women, rightly expecting financial independence, now constitute a massive and important part of the workforce. Meanwhile, women are asked to choose between motherhood and career, a fundamentally false choice that will only evaporate with a nationwide effort among the public and private sectors alike. No woman's resume should be considered marred by maternity leave. Nor should childcare pose a barrier to a woman's career. 

Only the abortion question — legally settled since 1974 — still looms among Schlafly's smattering of otherwise irrelevant grievances. 

Without or without ERA, the so-called traditional gender roles changed anyway. Schlafly's longing for a stagnant society was slayed by forces economic and socio-political.

But, as the #MeToo movement puts in full relief, women have not achieved legitimate equality. They're combating eons of stereotypes and entrenched institutional gender roles no longer applicable to modern society. They're held to different standards by men whom, sometimes, aren't even aware of their own prejudices. And it's this persistent reality that ERA strives to upend.

So far, 36 states have ratified the proposed amendment. Nevada this past year become the most recent state to ratify it. Just Illinois and one other state — many of which have been debating the issue for years — would finally propel the ERA over the required threshold.  

That said, it's still unclear whether simply meeting the 38-state requirement would be enough. Unlike previous long-argued constitutional amendments, Congress in 1972 imposed a deadline on state ratification. Years later, it extended the sunset until 1982. Even then, ERA could muster the necessary support among state legislatures. And, on my fronts, it was Illinois and Schlafly who lead the charge to scuttle constitutional protections for women. 

But ERA's supporters contend Congress could revive the issue should it so choose. In today's political environment, it's difficult to see how this Congress would get behind new constitutional protections for a historically oppressed population when, far too often, it seems more concerned with taking them away. 

Even still, Illinois' leading role in quashing the ERA is an ugly stain on the state's recent history. And passage within Illinois General Assembly would increase further the pressure on Congress to revive the ERA, including the sweeping support its received from the vast majority of states. 

Illinois was a key player in sapping the life from the ERA. Now, it should be among the states demanding its resuscitation. 

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Local editorials represent the opinion of the Quad-City Times editorial board, which consists of Publisher Deb Anselm, Executive Editor Matt Christensen, Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander, Associate Editor Bill Wundram and community representative John Wetzel.


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