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The Women’s Movement and Gender Equality: ERA Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 26th, 2022

In the 21st century, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when women were treated as inferior beings. However, the history of sex discrimination is long and rich, and not over yet. Many people believe that the one sure way to end it lies in the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution.

Opponents of the ERA argue that it is redundant due to the already existing Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned clause was not always perceived as referring to gender equality. Although it was successful in ensuring the rights of the former male slaves, women were still treated differently from men for a long time since the Amendment’s ratification. Epstein and Walk (2013) suggest that the primary role of women in the early 20th century was that of a mother; thus, in the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon, they were prohibited from working long hours in order to preserve their health, which was deemed “an object of public interest” (p. 652). The verdict was well-intended and served to “protect women in the workforce” (Epstein and Walk, 2013, p. 652), but nowadays is considered extremely condescending. The tendency to over-patronize women can be seen in later cases, too. While the 1908 case was mostly concerned with the women’s physical well-being, the 1948 case of Goesaert v. Cleary was meant to prevent them from losing their virtues through dealing with “manly” vices, such as consumption of alcohol. Therefore, “the justices declared valid a Michigan law that barred a woman from becoming a bartender unless she was a member of the bar owner’s immediate family” (Epstein and Walk, 2013, p. 652). Another example of over-protection is the 1961 Hoyt v. Florida case, when the court ruled to uphold a state law that “automatically exempted women from jury duty unless they asked to serve” (Epstein and Walk, 2013, p. 652). Whether the women benefited from those verdicts or not, they promoted the idea of female inferiority.

The situation began to change in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the decision to appoint a father an heir to a son’s inheritance over a mother, based on gender only, violated the mother’s rights and contradicted the Fourteenth Amendment (Epstein and Walk, 2013, p. 652). After that, the above-mentioned amendment has started to evolve into an instrument of ensuring gender equality. No formal changes were made, but the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause altered to include women’s rights. The formal amendment process is much more difficult than the informal one; thus, “Americans cannot easily revise the Fourteenth Amendment formally” (Graber, 2013, p. 159), and the proposed ERA faced many challenges. Nevertheless, existing precedents can influence the court’s decision significantly, and nowadays they are abundant due to the new ways of applying the Fourteenth Amendment.

The seemingly effective informal amendment process raises the question of whether the proposed ERA is necessary. Brezina (2014) states that the ERA would provide a much more explicit protection from discrimination against women than the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (p. 12). It is possible to conclude that although the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause has grown to address gender equality, this issue requires the passage of a more specific amendment. The ratification of the ERA would bring order to the somewhat chaotic women’s movement and legally guarantee that gender equality is maintained in all spheres of life.

Works Cited

Brezina, Corona. Understanding Equal Rights. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2014. Print.

Epstein, Lee, and Thomas G. Walk. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2013. Print.

Graber, Mark A. A New Introduction to American Constitutionalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

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