Illinois approves Equal Rights Amendment, 36 years after deadline

By Rick Pearson and Bill Lukitsch

CHICAGO – The Illinois House voted Wednesday night to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment more than 45 years after it was approved by Congress, putting it one state away from possible enshrinement in the U.S. Constitution amid potential legal questions.

The 72-45 vote by the House, following an April vote by the Senate, was just one more vote than needed for ratification.

It does not need the approval of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has said he supports equal rights but was faulted by Democrats for not taking a position on the ERA.

“I am appalled and embarrassed that the state of Illinois has not done this earlier,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, a Marine veteran. “I am proud to be on this side of history and I am proud to support not only all the women that this will help, that this will send a message to, but I am also here to be a role model for my daughter.”

Helping to propel momentum for the measure was a resurgence in activism for women’s rights amid national demands to root out sexual discrimination and harassment in American culture in response to the #MeToo movement.

As has been the case for decades, the legislative debate over the Equal Rights Amendment was fraught with controversy.

Opponents largely contended the measure was aimed at ensuring an expansion of abortion rights for women.

Supporters said it was needed to give women equal standing in the nation’s founding document.

Opponents also contended the measure may be moot, since its original 1982 ratification deadline has long since expired.

Supporters argued, however, that the 1992 ratification of the 1789 “Madison Amendment,” preventing midterm changes in congressional pay, makes the ERA a legally viable change to the Constitution.

State Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, an abortion rights opponent, called the measure “an alleged constitutional amendment” and warned it would be adopting an “illegal act.” But Breen also contended supporters “have no other thing they want to do” than expand abortion rights.

“It will expand taxpayer funding of abortions, very well might roll back our parental notice (for minors to have an abortion) law and have other negative impacts on various abortion regulations,” Breen said.

But state Rep. Steve Andersson, a Geneva Republican, said the measure “isn’t about those distractions.”

“This is about who we are as a people. This is about who we believe the state of Illinois is and should be, going forward,” he said. “But it’s more than just the state of Illinois. It’s about the United States of America and quite frankly, I believe it’s about the planet. I believe it’s about how we treat women and men.”

Representative of divisions that went beyond partisanship, GOP Rep. Christine Winger of Wood Dale told her colleagues: “I am pro-life. Again, I am pro-life. I’m a mother of a 2-year-old daughter. I am for her and others to know in the state of Illinois she should have the same opportunities as men. Vote yes.”

State Rep. Litesa Wallace, an African-American Democrat from Rockford who is leaving the House after losing a bid for lieutenant governor, recounted her family’s history of oppression in likening her support for the ERA to the battle for civil rights.

“I’m the daughter of a man who was born on a plantation. I’m the granddaughter of a woman who left the South to come to Chicago for opportunity but never found it because of her race and her gender,” Wallace said during an emotional speech urging the amendment’s passage. “I stand here a single mother who has survived damn near anything you can think of, and I mean that quite literally.”

Illinois’ 1970 constitution outlaws gender discrimination. Nevada became the last state to ratify the ERA before Illinois last year.

“This is about the United States Constitution, people. And half the people in this country aren’t in it,” Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the resolution in the House, said. “They aren’t included in the United States Constitution. Isn’t that enough for you to realize the historic moment and step back from predispositions you’ve had and your heels dug in the ground on this issue and that issue and the other issue?”

Whether the amendment can be added to the nation’s founding document is still a matter of debate among constitutional experts.

Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in constitutional law, said it’s unclear “there’s an obvious right or wrong answer.”

Some critics have also questioned the necessity of such an amendment, saying federal laws have already been passed to extend equal rights to women.

Stone said ratification of the amendment “would make some difference in marginal cases where the law allows discrimination today” and “lock in” many of the federal protections women have gained over the decades.

“The main reason for adopting the Equal Rights Amendment today if one could legally, constitutionally do it would be the symbolic importance of it,” Stone said. “The rejection of it is in some ways insulting. So, the symbolic importance of it is to who we are as a nation – what our aspirations are, what our values are. That in itself is an important affirmation of who we are.”