I come late to the ERA conversation. As a writer who concerns herself with politics, I find it as surprising as you do. But the truth of the matter is, I’ve never seen the social issues that I like to talk about through a particularly feminist eye. I didn’t identify that way. I just saw them through the lens of my experience. And because I have the right to vote, the freedom of the press and free speech, because we live in a pro-choice age, the ERA didn’t register on my radar. The fight had been fought and I could pay homage to the women who came before me by writing my viewpoints and publishing them widely, by reading, by voting, by making informed decisions and supporting my fellow women.
But that’s not enough.
Although I knew that the Equal Rights Amendment hadn’t passed, I didn’t really understand the implications. They are practical as well as immaterial. By that I mean that the fact that women are paid seventy-seven cents on the dollar to what a man is paid (sixty-four cents if you’re a woman of color) and that this is a federally recognized discrimination – carries out in myriad ways that tell women that they are paid less because they are worth less.
I didn’t really understand this, or believe it, until I started to consider it through the lens of a parent and to think of it in a racial context. I’l start with the first. In reading every single parenting book that came on the market and systematically throwing them out after I gleaned the one thing that made sense in each of them, I learned something about potential. Up until then, potential had been an enemy word to me. Potential was something I learned to hide in school because once a teacher learned I had potential, they expected me to live up to it. And that took work that I wasn’t willing to put in. My advice to friends from elementary school upwards was this: Never let ‘em see your potential. Once they do, you’re screwed. They are perpetually disappointed in you. A late assignment brings chastisement instead of shrugged shoulders. And if that bothers you, like it did me, potential makes you pick up a book and a pen just to quiet the mounting frustration of others. And it creates something else: a taste for praise. And if you’re anything like me, that taste, coupled with potential, might make you a writer. In other words: trouble.
Parenting books reinforced this, but from a far different perspective. They asked me to expect great things from my child – whether it be potty training or restaurant behavior – and to let that expectation dictate their potential. Because the thing is, if you’re expected to succeed, it becomes more work to fail.
And I started thinking about Trayvon Martin. I wondered about how he presented himself and how perceptions of him dictated the events that led to the end of his life. I thought about potential again, about our former President, who, unlike Martin, wasn’t a good student. Yet being born into a successful family where privilege and stature fed the expectations of potential, George W. Bush became the leader of the free world. He believed he was worth more. And so he was.
And that’s the thing. Society seems to take on an active role about telling people what their potential is. We tell them through our culture, and we tell them through how we legislate. And that voice becomes internalized and affects behavior. It affects who we think we are. What we can do. And what we are worth.
Of course, not everybody. For every stereotype, there are exceptions. Not every white-bread mediocre son of American royalty becomes President. Not every dark-skinned son of an abandoned father and a mother on food stamps wears hoodies and are shot down: some become President. (As a senator, President Obama cosponsored the Women’s Equality Amendment. And when he was a state senator, he sponsored a joint resolution ratifying the ERA.) Some women internalize their diminished status. Some become dependent on men for safety and financial security. Some accept discrimination as a rule. Some think the fight for equality has been fought before us. But some become the COO of Facebook. Some carry on epic filibusters. And some will run for President.
If we recognize on a federal level in the Consti-freaking-tution that women are entitled to equality under the law, then maybe we can understand the full potential of the United States. Maybe we can figure out what this amazing experiment of a country can do.
Because progress has slowed. We’re at an impasse. We’ve lost sight of who we are and where we are going. We agree on little but that the system is broken. We don’t agree on where and how badly it is, or on how to fix it. We certainly can’t agree on who can fix it. But I think we can agree that by giving half of our population the tools – both tangible and immaterial – to help fix it, we can only go forward. Just ask Elizabeth Warren, Wendy Davis, Tammy Duckworth, Hillary Clinton and Allison Lundergan Grimes, to name a few of the latest rock stars on the national political radar.
With a law that cannot be repealed on the state level by backwards politicians who understand that the way to continue the status quo is to lower our collective expectations, what is possible?
But we have work to do. The ERA failed because a deadline for ratification was placed on it. There needed two-thirds of the states to pass it, yet only thirty-five did in time, just shy of the thirty-eight needed. A renewed effort is being put in place now to lift the deadline and with a three state strategy join the rest of the civilized nations of the world by legislating equality. NOW will only support candidates who agree to the three state strategy and on lifting the deadlines with their endorsement and financial contributions.Together we can get there.
And then we have to do the work.
The world is expecting us.