Listen Close: Sex Appeal and the Equal Rights Amendment

As we react today to watching states like Georgia and Alabama vote to strip women of their reproductive freedom, I sense that some of the shock comes our belief that times have changed and that our equality is actually safeguarded. For example, according to The New York Times, “By some estimates, 80 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that women and men are guaranteed equal rights, but the only right the Constitution explicitly extends to both men and women is the right to vote.”

Molly Coyne and I were recently talking about our shock at learning that not only is this not a guarantee, but that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex was not ratified by enough states to be added—as recently as the 1980s—and that five of the 35 states which did ratify it have since requested to rescind:

“I still remember my astonishment in that moment years ago. I sat in front of my computer, researching for an upcoming teaching unit, scratching my head, attempting to recall my own high school junior year US history class. I drew a blank. Never once had I heard the words: Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Moreover, I couldn’t believe that the ERA had yet to be passed to that (or this!) day.”

Radiolab’s spin-off series, More Perfect, tells stories behind some of the Supreme court’s biggest rulings, and this episode is a great place to start if you too are scratching your head:

From the episode “Sex Appeal,” “‘Equal protection of the laws’ was granted to all persons by the 14th Amendment in 1868. But for nearly a century after that, women had a hard time convincing the courts that they should be allowed to be jurors, lawyers, and bartenders, just the same as men. A then-lawyer at the ACLU named Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out to convince an all-male Supreme Court to take sex discrimination seriously with an unconventional strategy. She didn’t just bring cases where women were the victims of discrimination; she also brought cases where men were the victims.” Ironically, it’s a story of frat boys and beer—they were upset they couldn’t buy beer at age 18 when their girlfriends could. Ginsburg wrote an influential brief for the 1976-case which argued gender discrimination against men and the case was won in favor of the men.

The entire 56-minute episode is really worth a listen for a historical perspective on this, and how the 14th and 15th amendments have and have not applied to women.

If there’s any optimism to be taken away—and boy, do I need some of that!—it’s that laws do change when you vote, and find the right champions.

Do you listen to podcasts on the news? Any recent episodes to recommend? 

P.S. Thinking About: Fighting for What’s Right and Staying Ahead of Dispair

[Lead Photo: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1978. (Lynn Gilbert); The New York Times Quote from the article “What Is the Equal Rights Amendment, and Why Are We Talking About It Now?” February 2019; Thank you to Molly Coyne for sharing this podcast with me!]


Related posts:

Travel Guides

Browse By Category