On January 15, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a white whale of a law which would guarantee that neither states nor the federal government could deny rights “on account of sex.” Though the deadline to ratify the amendment expired in the early ’80s, states like Virginia and Nevada are keeping the ERA in the news, and terrifying opponents who thought they’d successfully quashed the amendment 30 years ago. Three decades ago, those arguing against the ERA fretted over what the amendment would do to the “traditional” family, eroding roles that placed heterosexual men at the heads of households just as they headed corporations, workplaces, and the government.
To put what so many believed as the “natural” order of things out of whack was to invite chaos. Now, the current conversation around the ERA still remains steeped in paranoia around what happens if the framework for unequal gender roles is taken away.
About a month before her death in 2016, longtime enemy of the Equal Rights Amendment Phillis Schlafly perfectly summarized the anti-feminist issue with equality—treating all humans as equal under the law erodes a hierarchy humans have been cultivating for centuries:
“Anyone with a child knows that children learn about the world through binary options: up or down, hot or cold, big or little, inside or outside, wet or dry, good or bad, boy or girl, man or woman,” Schlafly said. “But the radical feminists, who staff women’s studies departments at most colleges, have propagated the idea that we have to get rid of the ‘gender binary’ along with the expectation of distinct roles for men and women.”
The idea that gender roles are inborn and that children somehow learn about the world without being taught those lessons by adults is the cornerstone of many arguments against the ERA: “separate but equal” language as a way of keeping things separate and decidedly unequal. Schlafly’s analogy conviently excludes terms like “sideways,” “lukewarm,” “medium,” or “damp,” creating false binaries where there are none just as many ERA dissenters would like to differentiate roles for women and roles for men, ignoring the fact that reality is much more grey than it is white and black.
Religious groups are often at the forefront of upholding gender as predetermined and loaded with a set of immutable obligations. Seemingly in response to pressure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Utah, the Church of Latter-Day Saints this month produced a statement regarding Mormons and feminism that echoes Schlafly’s concerns about upholding gender roles:
“Gender is an important part of who we are—both before, during, and after this life. Men and women are equal—one is not superior to the other. They are also different, with different roles within a family.”
What the statement doesn’t say is that these “different roles” in a religious context are generally that of executive and manager, with men as head of the family, overseeing all executive decisions, and women as coordinators, taking on the work of implementing those plans on a day-to-day basis. Anyone who has ever worked in an office understands that those roles are not equal and recognize this language as the same a CEO uses when insisting that every employee is valuable. What the boss isn’t saying is that some employees are absolutely more valuable than others and the entire corporate system is built around a hierarchy in which respect very often only flows upward. Erasing gender lines differentiating those in charge from those taking orders overthrows the entire system, and even criticism insisting that women are already equal and don’t really need these protections reads as fearful of what happens to the hierarchy if we remove dividers we’ve created between the roles of women and the roles of men.
In a January 27 piece for Forbes, Carrie Lukas insists that a country recognizing equal rights regardless of sex might not be more dangerous for women, as it will take away the scant protections we’ve created for women from men:“But the ERA would erase any policies that treat men and women as distinct biological groups for programs and facilities including public restrooms, domestic violence shelters, prisons, athletic teams, and initiatives to encourage participation in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.”
In emphasizing the need for these barriers by suggesting they are all that keep women from abuse, she’s undermining her own argument that the playing field is already equal. Why would women need shelters or programs designed to include them in STEM fields if there were ample recourse for protection from abusers or inclusive programs to get all students interested in math and science? The argument that the ERA will make women vulnerable ignores the fact that current systems constantly fail to protect women.
That’s because Lukas isn’t making a good faith argument that “programs and facilities” need to protect vulnerable women. She’s arguing in favor of making sure existing systems exclude trans women. Without codified gender binaries, the theory goes, bad men will be able to attack vulnerable women in places designed for their protection. However, she doesn’t mean cis men. Instead, the author is implying that trans women are not women but cis hetro men plotting to manipulate the ERA in order to gain access to resources designed for women, rather than women who deserve the right to access services meant for women. The subtext of this argument is that recognizing humans as equal means we also must recognize trans people as human, in need of the same services and protections afforded to other humans, a concession Schlafly acknowledged when she predicted that “the ERA means abortion funding, means homosexual privileges, means whatever else.” The Hill echoes this paranoia, insisting that the passage of the ERA means the erasure of “women” as a separate but equal classification for humans:
“The word ‘women’ never appears in the ERA. Instead, the amendment focuses on ‘sex’ — a word increasingly in danger of becoming meaningless as ideologues push to disassociate the term from biology and replace it with ‘gender identity.’”
As proof of the dangers of changing ideas about inclusion, the Hill references a case in Massachusetts that allowed trans children to join field hockey team: “In Massachusetts, the state Supreme Court ruled that if boys who identified as girls wanted to participate in sports that are not available to boys, such as field hockey, the state’s ERA required that the boys be permitted to do so.”
These arguments belie exactly what their authors are actually afraid of, not loss of protections for women, but the creation of an equal playing field. It’s easy to see who has the advantage by looking at who is shouting that the game is already fair.