Unlike most other countries in the world, the United States does not have a constitutional equality provision guaranteeing equal rights for women. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has publicly affirmed that the United States Constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has expressed the hope that in her lifetime she will see women “get fired up about the Equal Rights Amendment” and put it in our Constitution.

We need the ERA for many reasons to help women achieve equality in the workplace, in the family, and in the community.  One of these reasons is to ensure that women can secure protection from and justice for violence perpetrated against them.  Too often, reports of rape and domestic violence – at times life-threatening – are casually dismissed by police, prosecutors, and judges, sometimes with deadly consequences.

When Jessica Gonzalez repeatedly begged the police in Castle Rock, Colorado to enforce a mandatory order of protection against her husband, pleading with them to look for the three daughters he had taken in violation of the court order, the police did not respond.  It was only when Mr. Gonzalez himself drove to the police station and opened fire on police that they shot him and subsequently found the three girls dead in his truck.  Jessica sued the police for their failure to intervene.  The Supreme Court ruled her claim unfounded and denied her any recourse for the death of her three girls.  These deaths might well have been averted had the police provided Jessica Gonzalez the protection to which she was legally entitled. Even a court order in hand was of no avail when she tried to get it enforced.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provided a civil cause of action for gender-based violence that victims could use against perpetrators, but this provision of VAWA was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  When Christy Brzonkala, a freshman at Virginia Tech, was assaulted and repeatedly raped by two fellow male students, she brought a claim against them through college disciplinary proceedings. When that failed, despite the fact that one of the perpetrators admitted to having sexual contact with Christy although she had said “No” twice, Christy tried to bring action in state court.  The state grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to charge either man with rape, even the man who admitted to the nonconsensual sex.  When Christy brought suit under VAWA, the Supreme Court struck down the civil cause of action in VAWA as an unconstitutional use of legislative power, leaving her and others like her without remedy.[2]

Women who seek protection from police and other officials in similar situations routinely fail to receive protection and are left without recourse.  Violence against women is a form of discrimination on the basis of sex that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment has failed to address effectively.  The ERA could play a critical role in ensuring that women who are violated get the legal protection from violence to which they are entitled and that in the event of a failure to provide this protection, law enforcement and other public officials can be held accountable.

The ERA was first passed by Congress in 1972. Over the course of the next ten years before the deadline expired, a nation-wide campaign for its ratification succeeded in 35 states, just 3 short of the number needed for the amendment to become effective. Several relevant bills are now pending in Congress including a new Equal Rights Amendment introduced by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in August 2013.  The bill – H.J. Res 56 – already has more than 150 sponsors, but action is needed make it a priority for passage.

The Coalition for the ERA is supported by V-Day, the YWCA, NOW, the Feminist Majority, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence, among others. Women and men, and Republicans and Democrats alike, should support the ERA – not least because it will give women subjected to violence an urgently needed legal framework for justice.

[1] Jessica Neuwirth, a lawyer/activist, is the founder of international women’s rights advocacy group Equality Now and former Director of the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  She has recently founded a new US-based national Coalition for the Equal Rights Amendment

[2] U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).