Commentary: Why Minnesota Women STILL Do Not Have Equal Rights

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The Minnesota legislative session ended with a well-documented shouting match Sunday at midnight. One of the bills that remained on the table, without a Senate vote, was the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); last year it was the House that did not act on the bill. Minnesota’s ERA activists have attempted to get equal rights codified into the state constitution for decades.

The original Senate bill wording in 2023 was to not discriminate on the basis of “race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry, or country of origin.”

The proposed amendment was to put on the 2024 election ballot the question: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to say that all persons shall be guaranteed equal rights under the laws of this state, and shall not be discriminated against on account of race, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, or sex, including pregnancy, gender, and sexual orientation?”

This Week’s News

Rep. Kaoly Her. (Photo Lorie Shaull)

The House passed — at 4:30am on May 19 by a vote of 68-62 — the SF37 bill as amended by Rep. Kaohly Her (DFL–Saint Paul), who was the chief author of the House companion bill. It included new wording from the input of Gender Justice lawyers: “All persons shall be guaranteed equal rights under the laws of this state. The state shall not discriminate against any person in intent or effect on account of one or more of the following; race, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, or sex, including but not limited to: making and effectuating decisions about all matters relating to one’s own pregnancy or decision whether to become or remain pregnant; gender identity or gender expression; or sexual orientation.” 

After its passage in the House, Her said: “We made possible a brighter, fairer, safer, and more equitable future for full-spectrum reproductive health care in Minnesota. The Minnesota Equal Rights Amendment will ensure that the work we did last year will be protected in our state constitution regardless of who is in office or which party is in power, and codify freedom, fairness, and equality for everyone once and for all.”

The bill was sent to the Senate for a vote on the last day of the session. The Senate did not have time to vote on it, after other legislative priorities and filibustering debates took over the process. Opposition to the bill tended to be related to the language of the amendment itself, even though voters were to be given the right to decide if they wanted to add the words to the constitution or not.

Rep. Walter Hudson (GOP–Albertville) rejected the House bill because he said it raised questions about hypothetical situations without clear rules about how to measure discrimination and disparate impact. “This is a bad bill … [It will erase] a lot of people from legal acknowledgement.” In a half-hour talk from the floor, Hudson said the diversity of Minnesota’s communities means it becomes unquantifiable to ascertain and thus reward “which subsection is getting a more raw deal?”

He said that injecting an expression of gender identity, and allowing for a redefinition of what a woman is, can “literally [allow for] whatever is in your head right now,” Hudson said, speculating that there are more than a dozen gender identities. “Which one is going to entitle me to reparation? … You are going to create an incentive in the state constitution for people to [make claims of discrimination], whether they believe it or not, so they can benefit from wherever the political winds are shifting in that moment.”

Hudson, who is biracial, has indicated on his website that he believes the country has regressed into a conversation that is not about color-blind opportunity, but of unfair privilege. He grew up, he indicated in his floor discussion, not able to comprehend why chattel slavery and the Holocaust were able to happen. “People were not treated equally at the beginning, but we have gotten a lot better.”

He also objected to the ERA because it does not protect the unborn. “I don’t think you’ve thought this one through,” he said. “What happens when someone figures out the disparate impact of the ability to kill your unborn child if that conflicts with another category? It’s amazing how the concern for disparate impact has a cut-off at the most vulnerable, the most helpless. Suddenly we don’t care anymore. Now we’re going to change the constitution of the state of Minnesota so that for all time we are going to calcify the permanent [denial of] rights of the unborn.”

Rep. Lisa Demeth (GOP–Cold Spring), House Minority Leader, had a more focused discussion that drew attention to not providing equal rights for all. She noted that the ERA did not offer protection for the elderly, and that limiting protections “to a narrow list chosen by politicians” is dangerous, as is inclusion of “vague language about pregnancy. Already in Minnesota we are equal. Hiding the true intent from voters is wrong. When you enshrine the votes of some, you diminish the rights of others.”

Find the House discussion here.


Thoughts From Betty Folliard

Betty Folliard with then-Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray at the Capitol in January 2023. Photo by Sarah Whiting

I was a college student at Stanford University when the ERA finally passed through the U.S. Congress in 1972; but at that time, we were more focused on ending the Vietnam War. As a drama student, I played Susan B. Anthony, a rape victim, a black maid to an all-white family (in which the family was played by all Black actors), and Pat Nixon on the streets of Palo Alto protesting the Nixon Administration’s war efforts.

After decades of “Madmen” culture — surviving the slings and arrows of discrimination and witnessing the indignities of disparities in marginalized and intentionally minorities communities — I came to the conclusion that we had to stop working on women’s rights in [small pieces]. These were systemic problems that needed systemic change. Hence my focus on the ERA, which is the umbrella over all issues impacting women’s lives. 

ERA Minnesota was started in 2014, inspired by the wonderful work that resulted in the passage of the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA). Minnesota was on the forefront of protections for women in the workforce. I told Sen. Sandy Pappas that I was going to a women’s rights rally in Washington D.C. She replied, “We should get a bus, Betty.” That seed grew into a strong movement to pass the ERA both in our state and federally. 

We wandered through the political wilderness under split government for years — educating, agitating, activating, and growing our coalition. 

The opposition to equal rights in our state has been the same: the Catholic Conference, Minnesotans Concerned for Life, and the Minnesota Family Council. These groups offer the same arguments as were expressed 50 years ago, against the rights to abortion, access to unisex bathrooms, and the belief that the ERA was instead ripping away protections for women; lately that argument has included a belief that trans rights diminishes women.  

When the Senate leadership was more fully in GOP hands, they wouldn’t talk to us about the ERA in their offices or on the phone. 

Yet what I have found most challenging has not been the anti-choice extremists who decide the ERA is not worth supporting, but that many Minnesotans simply think we already have rights protected in our state constitution. Yet although 28 states have a provision that provides for gender equality, Minnesota is not one of them. We have never had an equality clause in our state constitution.

The fight for a federal ERA began 101 years ago. The movement for state equal rights has been going on for 41 years. The wording we sought from Minnesota legislators this year was to evolve our language to enshrine protections to all people, and then let state voters decide if they wanted the language in our constitution.

Legislators did not even prioritize — again — giving voters a chance to choose.

Thoughts From Suzann Willhite

I have been advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment as my specific volunteer core issue since 2016, after Trump was elected. Seeing and hearing the misogyny and disrespect of women and many people energized me to focus on the need for foundational equal legal human rights in both our state and federal constitutions. I joined the League of Women Voters (LWVMN), American Association of Women (AAUW), National Organization for Women (NOW) and Equal Rights Amendment Minnesota (ERAMN) to achieve that goal. 

ERAMN is a totally volunteer organization founded by former Minnesota legislator Betty Folliard in 2014 with a laser focus mission on passing both the state and federal ERA. ERAMN became my primary advocacy work because the organization aligns with my values of fairness, opportunity and equality for all people. 

After I retired from work in 2020, I became ERAMN President for two years, ending in 2023, and continue to advocate for the ERA. I managed money, spoke to groups, activated supporters, and communicated on social media. Most people think we already have equal rights, or that we don’t need to ask for equal rights under the law. Yet we still don’t have equal pay for equal work. We still don’t have equal access to comprehensive health care. We can see from Title IX, which applies in our educational institutions, what equal access and opportunity can look like.

The movement to make equal rights the law of Minnesota has been a roller coaster ride for me. It has been both a rewarding and painful process to get attention and action on the ERA. The ERA bills did not move in the Minnesota legislature when Republicans were in the majority. And frankly, I don’t think the Democrats have made the ERA a priority. 

The ERA was pulled from the House floor vote on the last day of the 2023 session with the promise to bring SF37 back for a vote in February 2024.  Yet there I was, in the gallery in the last  week of session, until the wee hours on several days, waiting to hear the ERA discussion on both the House and the Senate floors. I did not get the chance to see how Minnesota Senate legislators would finally place their vote in 2024, because — for the second year in a row — the ERA was left to the final day. 

So many bills were left until the last days of session; Republicans seemed to focus on obstructing and filibustering for hours to kill time. At least one Democratic legislator indicated they would not vote for anything in the party unless a particular interest was approved first. Some Republicans indicated they would not vote for a bonding bill unless the ERA was dropped. 

It is hard to understand why Equal Rights is considered controversial, except that there is a long history of discrimination in the U.S. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, a member of the First Continental Congress, imploring him to “Remember the Ladies. She added, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” 

He did not in 1776. And today, we still have not corrected that mistake. 

Insights Shared by Rep. Leigh Finke

From a news release after the House passed its version of the bill by Rep. Leigh Finke, chair of the Queer Legislators’ Caucus (DFL–Saint Paul) “Today is an exciting day and the result of over 100 years of work. We would not be here if it weren’t for the ERA activists who have shown up year after year committed to ensuring the rights of all Minnesotans are protected. Today we passed the strongest and most inclusive ERA in the nation. By updating the amendment, we are making good on our promise of trans refuge by enshrining protections for trans, intersex, nonbinary, and queer community in our state constitution.

“Inclusion is not a threat, Inclusion is not a danger. I don’t know why we have to pretend like the world falls apart if trans people live and participate in the world, but it simply doesn’t. Instead, when you exclude us, you put us at risk, you put our lives at risk. Literally murder, literally assault, you would have me in the men’s room, you would put me into positions of such great danger because of an illusion — a threat that is not real.”

An ERA amendment, she said, would be a step toward protecting community members from the bullying, intimidation, violence, and loss of life that folks face for no other reason than trying to live peaceful, authentic lives as their full selves. 

A selected cut of Rep. Finke’s speech can be found here 

Continuing Struggles About the Equal Status of Women 

Equal rights has taken on more urgency for advocates since the 2016 election and since abortion rights have started to fall around the country, which have been strong indications of the unequal treatment of women. Two Midwest states were in the news recently because of public voices who proclaim where women and LGBTQ+-identifying people do not belong. 

Seven days before Minnesota legislators skipped the vote about equal rights, a Kansas City Chiefs football player offered a commencement speech in which he said women have been subjected to “diabolical lies,” and that some women in the audience might go on to have successful careers, but the majority should be “most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

His speech received extensive applause when he said his wife would be “the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother” and that we should fight against the “cultural emasculation of men.” He received a standing ovation from a majority of people in the audience.

The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi wrote a May 18 column about the talk, titled “Harrison Butker’s misogynistic graduation speech shows the bigots are winning.” She also noted that around the same time as his talk, Valentina Gomez, a Missouri woman running to be secretary of state, ran a short ad urging Americans not to be “weak and gay.”

Before the ERA passed in Kansas in 1972, by a vote of 86-27 and 34-5 in the Senate, married women could not get their own credit card and could be fired from a job for getting married or pregnant. Kansas was the first state to have a female mayor. 

Yet multiple times since then, there have been attempts to rescind the ERA in Kansas, largely prompted by the efforts of Illinois activist Phyllis Schafly, whose STOP ERA movement stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” She indicated at the time that the measure would lead to gender-neutral bathrooms, same-sex marriage, and women in military combat, among other things.

One letter writer to Kansas Senator Robert Dole said, “I feel the ERA will only deprive me of my rights. I am a mother of three children and am perfectly happy fulfilling the role of homemaker. I don’t want to serve in the armed forces as men do. … The laws protecting women from these things will surely be done away with if the ERA is passed.” 

In Missouri, an ERA coalition was unable to get an amendment into the state constitution in 1982, and largely gave up the effort. The only woman in the Missouri Senate at the time said, “A body dominated by men should not deny a vote on this issue.”

 


Suggested Next Step

 


Related Resources

 

From Minnesota Women’s Press archives

 

2023 ERA rally at State Capital (photo by Sarah Whiting)

 

MPR coverage, May 13

 

Historical details about the Equal Rights Amendment derived from Brennan Center report:

The Equal Rights Amendment was first drafted in 1923 by two leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. They believed that enshrining the principle of gender equality in our founding charter would help overcome many of the obstacles that kept women as second-class citizens.

Beginning in 1923, lawmakers introduced the ERA in every session of Congress, but it made little progress until the 1970s. Between those years, only 10 women served in the Senate, with no more than two serving at the same time. The picture was only slightly better in the House.

Within a year of passing in 1972, however, 30 of the necessary 38 states acted to ratify the ERA. Momentum slowed as conservative activists allied with the emerging religious right to launch a campaign to stop the amendment. Though the GOP was the first party to endorse the ERA in 1940, Republican lawmakers cooled to the amendment, leading to a stalemate in the states.

After four decades of inactivity, Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018 took steps to ratify the ERA. In 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA since Congress proposed it in 1972 — but it still has not become a universal law around the country as was initially intended. The Constitution provides that amendments take effect when three-quarters of the states ratify them, putting the current threshold at 38 states. Virginia technically pushed the ERA across that threshold. Yet the ratification deadlines that Congress set have lapsed, and five states have acted to rescind prior approval. 

While the text of the amendment has changed over the years, the gist of it has remained the same. The version approved by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Brennan Center’s Women and Democracy Fellow, noted that the ERA would empower Congress “to enforce gender equity through legislation and, more generally, the creation of a social framework to formally acknowledge systemic biases that permeate and often limit women’s daily experiences.”

Although gains have been made for women in important ways, wage disparities, sexual harassment and violence, and unequal representation in government indicate that gender discrimination continues.

 

1 reply
  1. Ann Walters
    Ann Walters says:

    I have been a volunteer with ERA MN since 2016. My state Representative Kaohly Her did a masterful job in getting the ERA Amendment passed in the House after endless hours of debate.She shared some personal information about her own pregnancy concerns which I don’t think she had planned to discuss. Representative Her was very brave and offered the truth at the time when it was most needed. The bill passed in the House. Speaker Melissa Hortman said they were willing to give up the bonding bill because she was not willing to give up the ERA amendment. It didn’t strike me that this was said with sincerity. Whether you believe the ERA amendment was held up by Republicans filibustering or the Democrats waiting until the last final moments to push the bill, it was clear the ERA was being abandoned. We held our breath for the last few minutes of the session. It was completely chaotic and the Republicans voices grew even louder. Then Senator Sandy Pappas stood up and introduced the bonding bill. The very bill that House Speaker Melissa Hortman said they were willing to give up. The ERA amendment was never introduced and it was 30 seconds after midnight. No bills could be passed. It was a very disappointing day for the women of MN.

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