Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: A real mess of conversation’s about to begin here.

Micah Saul: Hi.

Neil Prendergast: Hi.

Saul: Yeah, that’s right. There’s three of us tonight. 

Anderson: Which is three too many as far as you’re con­cerned, but we’re bring­ing a new episode to you. This is Roberta Francis. She’s the chair of the ERA task force for the National Council of Women’s Organizations. She’s been work­ing in the ERA for over three decades and she also man­ages the web­site equal​right​samend​ment​.org. There’s a lot we could say about this. We haven’t talked about gen­der issues enough in this project yet.

Saul: We’ve been say­ing this a lot late­ly. This is one we want­ed from the very begin­ning. We need­ed some­body to talk about… Well, sort of the mod­ern state of fem­i­nism.

Anderson: Right. And Neil’s going to pla­gia­rize every­thing she says for his next lec­ture.

Prendergast: Oh, yeah. Give me a few weeks I’ll have it down.

Anderson: So here we go. We’ll be back on the end of this thing.


Roberta Francis: I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege in the mid-1960s. I was very interested—at that point got turned on to issues of social jus­tice because the civ­il rights strug­gles were very hot at that time. And I got it right away and was acti­vat­ed by the idea of social jus­tice based on race. And pret­ty much the whole cul­ture was not engaged in social jus­tice based on sex, gen­der at that point.

I got mar­ried in the mid 60s. I had a daugh­ter in 1969 and a son in 1973 and was doing the at-home mom gig at that point. I was a mem­ber of the local League of Women Voters in Chatham, New Jersey, and some­one asked if I had infor­ma­tion about the Equal Rights Amendment. And I looked in the League files, read about it. Fifty-two words say­ing equal­i­ty of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” and then two oth­er sec­tions that are imple­ment­ing it. 

And I thought what’s to argue? If ever ques­tions break open people’s psy­ches and lives, that was the ques­tion that that it for me. What’s to argue with equal­i­ty of rights shall not be denied?” And when I found out that what was being denied was pret­ty much the same as what had been argued against woman suf­frage and why women shouldn’t have the vote, etc., it just opened up the whole his­to­ry of sys­temic sex dis­crim­i­na­tion to me.

It was first writ­ten and pro­posed in 1923. And that was almost nine­ty years ago, and we are done with it yet. It actu­al­ly had been intro­duced in every Congress between 1923 and 1972, and just had not got­ten out. But 1972, Congress passed the ERA. It got thirty-five of the nec­es­sary thirty-eight rat­i­fi­ca­tions by 1977. It had been out to the states for five years. Well, Jimmy Carter was President at that point. Ronald Reagan’s machine was kick­ing up and the winds were behind the sails of the con­ser­v­a­tives. And the ERA was one rea­son, because it was a good orga­niz­ing tool for them.

Also, for instance insur­ance com­pa­nies real­ized if the ERA is in place, we’re going to have to stop using male/female as cat­e­gories of pric­ing for pre­mi­ums, cov­er­age, etc. And any busi­ness who was pay­ing inequitably based on gen­der (sex), was going to have to stop it. It was a big eco­nom­ic issue. It was a big cul­tur­al issue. A big the­o­log­i­cal issue. When you live in a uni­verse where God is male, and it goes from God to male to female to child to ani­mal, what­ev­er, this is the order of the uni­verse, then the ERA is upset­ting your whole world­view. And I think at bot­tom, a lot of the oppo­si­tion to it comes out of those lev­els of our psy­ches and our social­iza­tion that aren’t even fore­most in the argu­ments that are made. 

The ERA nev­er did get rat­i­fied by those final three states. So the vast major­i­ty of states, the very vast major­i­ty of peo­ple, were for it, but the polit­i­cal strate­giz­ing pre­vent­ed it from being put into the Constitution. So, since 1982, thir­ty years ago, the ERA has always been rein­tro­duced in every ses­sion of Congress. It’s still polit­i­cal­ly out there. People are look­ing at both the tra­di­tion­al start-over (both hous­es of Congress by two thirds and then thirty-eight states) afresh, or look­ing to get it rat­i­fied in three more states and test that oth­er premise.

Aengus Anderson: So thir­ty years lat­er, here we are. It’s almost like the machin­ery could even still be in place. Culturally, where are we now?

Francis: Back in the day, in the 70s, major argu­ments— I won’t even…yes I am rais­ing it by men­tion­ing it, but peo­ple always make fun of the uni­sex bath­rooms argu­ment.

Anderson: Oh, that’s… I mean, yeah we kin­da have to talk about it—

Francis: We do.

Anderson: Because when I think about some­thing that—

Francis: Yes.

Anderson: One of the only things I asso­ciate with killing the ERA is the uni­sex bath­room argu­ment.

Francis: Yes, yes. I mean again, so many of these things are ques­tioned so good because in the last thir­ty, forty years since it came out of Congress, things have changed so much. Even going into the 80s. I mean my daugh­ter, at Johns Hopkins in the late 80s into the 90s was on a co-ed floor in her dorm where they shared the bath­room etc. But she didn’t have the ERA to pro­tect her legal­ly in a lot of ways.

So, many of these things have hap­pened absolute­ly with­out the ERA. The lines drawn between equal­i­ty of rights under the law shall not be denied on account of sex, and some of the argu­ments are… You know, they’re pulled almost out of thin air. But they worked, because they push people’s but­tons.

Another one was women would have to be draft­ed if we had an ERA. Well, Congress can draft women today, if it choos­es. There are sev­er­al times when Congress was on the verge of draft­ing cer­tain cat­e­gories of women, for cer­tain cat­e­gories of jobs at least. Plus, when you look at what wom­ens’ role in the mil­i­tary is now, there are some com­bat jobs opened up to women now. Women are serv­ing on sub­marines. All kinds of things. Women have risen to the high­est ranks of admi­rals, gen­er­als, and so on. And yet argu­ments like that still seem to get under the radar and and make peo­ple say, Oh, we shouldn’t have this com­pelled same­ness.” It’s not about com­pelled same­ness, it’s about equal­i­ty of rights under the law.

Twenty-two states out of the fifty have vari­a­tions of state equal rights amend­ments. We’re liv­ing in a coun­try that has almost half its states oper­at­ing under what you might call the ERA. All of the hor­ror sto­ries that oppo­nents cite…haven’t hap­pened. Is this a great con­spir­a­cy over the decades for the states not to imple­ment all the hor­ri­ble things about the ERA until we have a fed­er­al one? No, it’s that prin­ci­ple works real­ly well. And it’s fair, and it’s part of a tra­di­tion.

Anderson: Do peo­ple feel like oh, well that battle’s basi­cal­ly been won. Who cares?

Francis: There are two won­der­ful polls I cite. The recent one, April 2012, Daily Kos and Service Employees International Union did a poll. Question was, Do you believe that the Constitution should guar­an­tee that men and women have equal rights?” essen­tial­ly. Ninety-one per­cent of peo­ple in April 2012 said the Constitution should guar­an­tee that women and men have equal rights.

And that has gone up by 3% since the oth­er poll that I quote, which was done in 2001—never got much visibility—that asked the ques­tion, Do you believe men and women should have equal rights?” And 96% said yes. Do you believe the Constitution should guar­an­tee it?” Eighty-eight per­cent said yes. Do you think the Constitution already guar­an­tees it?” Seventy-two per­cent said yes. Three quar­ters almost of the peo­ple, and who knows ten years lat­er whether it would be even more, think what’s the issue? That the Constitution already guar­an­tees equal rights for women and men when in fact it doesn’t.

Anderson: And it does in dif­fer­ent ways. So there’s vot­ing, right. And dif­fer­ent states have leg­is­la­tion. So, is it a moot point, fed­er­al­ly? I mean, what we gain by hav­ing the ERA at this point?

Francis: Well, that’s anoth­er absolute­ly key ques­tion. The 14th Amendment, which guar­an­tees equal pro­tec­tion of the laws and due process, the main objec­tive was to make the freed enslaved peo­ple cit­i­zens. Now, it’s been applied to sex dis­crim­i­na­tion for about forty years, has done won­der­ful things to pro­hib­it it, but still does not pro­hib­it sex dis­crim­i­na­tion under the law to the extent that an equal rights amend­ment would.

It doesn’t raise sex dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es to the same lev­el of required judi­cial scruti­ny, it’s called. A court must look at race dis­crim­i­na­tion under the high­est lev­el of strict scruti­ny. So, we want sex dis­crim­i­na­tion to have the same required lev­el of judi­cial scruti­ny that race dis­crim­i­na­tion does. And that doesn’t hap­pen yet under the 14th Amendment. It’s a kind of inter­me­di­ate lev­el of scruti­ny.

But, I’ll ask myself, What about Justice Scalia?” He has said that the Constitution does not pro­hib­it sex dis­crim­i­na­tion. In oth­er words, he is com­plete­ly opposed to the appli­ca­tion of the 14th Amendment to cas­es of sex dis­crim­i­na­tion. His argu­ment, which he would say is true to his orig­i­nal­ist read­ing of the Constitution, is that it was added to the Constitution on the basis of deal­ing with race dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Anderson: So it’s almost like if you’re deal­ing with Supreme Court jus­tices like that, you need to have the ERA in writ­ing.

Francis: Exactly. And that’s the whole point. I said when I read it at first it was exple­tive undelet­ed response. And the next thing I thought is, My God, there’s no bet­ter argu­ment for the Equal Rights Amendment than his cou­ple sen­tences.” Those of us who endorse equal­i­ty of rights under the law with­out even think­ing about it much do not under­stand how that chal­lenges the tra­di­tion­al male-dominant world­view. Without an Equal Rights Amendment, we’ve got no pro­tec­tion against the vagaries of who’s inter­pret­ing the Constitution.

Anderson: Gotcha. And how does that man­i­fest? I imme­di­ate­ly think work­place pay. You know, I think of jobs and schools being open to peo­ple.

Francis: Yeah.

Anderson: Is it con­ceiv­able that we could lose ground on those more, or that they could get worse?

Francis: Oh, we def­i­nite­ly could. Now, even with­out the ERA, we’ve made tremen­dous progress in statu­to­ry law and case law. They’re two ways that we advance in terms of, in this case, pro­tect­ing against sex dis­crim­i­na­tion in the law. So we’ve had things like Title IX. Everybody hears Title IX. Well, there were admin­is­tra­tive reg­u­la­tions in George W. Bush’s time that tried to pull back insti­tu­tions’ oblig­a­tions to live up to Title IX.

So, gen­er­al­ly peo­ple don’t see the skir­mish­es that are always always always going on in the back­ground to pre­serve where we are now in terms of laws against sex dis­crim­i­na­tion or laws that would pro­mote sex equal­i­ty. But com­pared to where we were when the ERA came out of Congress in 1972, we are very much bet­ter off in terms of equal­i­ty of rights being guar­an­teed by the law, because so many laws that did dis­crim­i­nate on their face are off the books as a result of the strug­gle for the Equal Rights Amendment. And in those thir­ty, forty years, the cul­tur­al con­text for the dis­cus­sion of the ERA has shift­ed under our feet more than I would have guessed, par­tic­u­lar­ly around gay rights. I would have pic­tured same-sex mar­riage as still being more of a hot-button issue. But it seems as though there’s a long row to hoe before it’s a non-issue, if you will. But right now, I think in my mind we reached the tip­ping point with that soon­er than I would have expect­ed.

Anderson: So, this project has explored what of dif­fer­ent visions of the future, and I would like to look at where do we go from here say, kind of your best-case sce­nario pos­si­ble.

Francis: Well, I’ll start out with we were talk­ing before you start­ed tap­ing about a book that I just fin­ished read­ing called Jerusalem, Jerusalem by James Carroll. At the end he has two para­graphs about for exam­ple mov­ing for­ward, just as you’re describ­ing it, what it would look like. And he says that the tra­di­tion­al reli­gions have upheld misog­y­nist sex­ism. He calls it a spe­cial symp­tom of reli­gious dis­or­der.”

And he believes that what he called anti-female vio­lence that is inher­ent in the misog­y­ny, in the male dom­i­nance, is on a con­tin­u­um which we know when we work with this—I thought this was an inter­est­ing way to express it—on a con­tin­u­um from intel­lec­tu­al assump­tions of male suprema­cy, to porno­graph­ic den­i­gra­tion, to phys­i­cal abuse, to enslave­ment and mur­der. If you start look­ing for root solu­tions to that, every­where you look, pro­mot­ing gen­der equal­i­ty bal­ances things out, takes some of that pow­er away that’s inher­ent in the male­ness. He says the oppo­site of male suprema­cy is not female suprema­cy but equal­i­ty. And I think that’s what a lot of men fear. If women are chal­leng­ing the male on top, the males are afraid what women are going for is women being in charge when if they paid any atten­tion they would see that’s not what it’s about. It’s about equal­i­ty.

Anderson: And it seems like that taps into a very…like a very low-level way as maybe even humans we think about the world in which we cre­ate hier­ar­chies, just in our minds, to orga­nize things. 

Francis: That’s right.

Anderson: And equal­i­ty can threat­en the whole men­tal struc­ture. So Carroll is sort of talk­ing about—and we’ve been dis­cussing a lot of inequal­i­ty can be baked into these old faith tra­di­tions—

Francis: Oh, absolute­ly.

Anderson: —which is real­ly intrigu­ing because I think of a lot of what I do is I talk to peo­ple about ideas of the good, and what are your lowest-level assump­tions. And reli­gion pro­vides a lot of those. It’s that ter­mi­nus point at which you don’t ask why any­more.

Francis: Mm hm.

Anderson: And whether someone’s sec­u­lar not, there’s always that point that you hit. 

Francis: Sure.

Anderson: So, if a lot of old­er faith tra­di­tions, at least in some of their inter­pre­ta­tions, are espous­ing inequal­i­ty, where are we get­ting this notion of equal­i­ty from? The one that we’re talk­ing about right here.

Anderson: Oh… Wow. You know, you can trace it back polit­i­cal­ly. The Enlightenment, Jefferson, John Locke. I mean, how far back do you go? But that’s only on the pub­lic, or you know the func­tion­al lev­el. Where does the impulse toward equal­i­ty come from? You know, you could go back and back and back. I think that what we look for is bal­ance. If equal­i­ty and bal­ance can be equat­ed, I think that when the sex roles are defined so hard and fast to be dif­fer­ent, we lose bal­ance. Because they’re defined to be dif­fer­ent, but then one is always count­ed as more impor­tant.

Anderson: It gets back to that hier­ar­chy.

Francis: A Margaret Mead study—I think it was in… I don’t know if it was in Samoa stud­ies or just some­where in Polynesian stud­ies. There were some islands where men did the weav­ing and women did the fish­ing. And there were some islands where women did the weav­ing and men did the fish­ing. What was com­mon was what the men did had more social val­ue than what the women did. So it wasn’t what they did, it was who was doing it.

Anderson: Hm. Do you think that’s part of what makes the ERA scary? Like, are we actu­al­ly afraid of equal­i­ty?

Francis: Yes. I think so. Thank you for mak­ing it so clear-cut. And obvi­ous­ly there are peo­ple who pant after it, and there are peo­ple whose knee-jerk reac­tion is, Don’t you dare because you will be turn­ing my world upside down.” Inequity is taught from the begin­ning in the patri­ar­chal fam­i­ly. And so peo­ple would see equal­i­ty as a threat to the tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly. And again, that hits very close to where a lot of peo­ple live.

Anderson: I mean it’s anoth­er ara­tional assump­tion, right, that in this case it maybe com­ing from faith tra­di­tions or maybe from a more amor­phous cul­tur­al sense. But like, how do you talk to some­one if you come from a back­ground where you ara­tional­ly just think look, equal­i­ty is impor­tant, fun­da­men­tal­ly, for peo­ple. And you’re talk­ing to some­one who thinks, Well, I have a faith tra­di­tion that says we should have a hier­ar­chi­cal soci­ety,” and that that’s the way it is. Is there a con­ver­sa­tion there, because you’re deal­ing with such dif­fer­ent low-level assump­tions?

Francis: Well, I’ve been on TV shows and so on argu­ing with oppo­nents of the ERA. And one of my take­aways is we’re speak­ing two dif­fer­ent lan­guages. I said it’s like I’m speak­ing Swedish and the oth­er person’s speak­ing Swahili, and the the word equal­i­ty has two dif­fer­ent mean­ings. And I don’t mean that to sound pes­simistic. I’m basi­cal­ly a very opti­mistic per­son. You can’t work on this for thirty-five plus years and not be an opti­mist that it’s going to do good and your giv­ing time to it is good. But there are so many lay­ers to this, and some of our con­ver­sa­tion, it’s help­ing elim­i­nate for me what are at some of those lev­els of the oppo­si­tion.

I man­age the web site equal​right​samend​ment​.org. You can go to the Frequently Asked Questions page. You can get all these facts. You can go to the page Why We Need the ERA. And putting all those facts out there is only the begin­ning of engag­ing peo­ple with this issue. You have to understand…one has to, I have to, that the ratio­nal lev­el of engage­ment with this is only the tip of the ice­berg.

You almost can’t even say, Let’s have a con­ver­sa­tion,” before you have the glos­sary; define your terms. Which I don’t find depress­ing, I just find more bur­den­some.

Anderson: And I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in this because you’ve been engaged in one of these con­ver­sa­tions. I think of ERA and women’s rights as being a real­ly heat­ed, emo­tion­al, arationally-rooted con­ver­sa­tion. And so how do you bal­ance those two things, the opti­mism with the sense that maybe you talk past each oth­er, and that you’re using dif­fer­ent words?

Francis: Well, let me… I’m not going to side­step the ques­tion, I’m going to take it to a place where in the ear­ly 80s I was the state women’s issues direc­tor for the New Jersey League of Women Voters, and we adopt­ed a study of abor­tion pub­lic pol­i­cy. But what I did as I was look­ing at the mate­ri­als was almost imme­di­ate­ly see there are two ques­tions here, and they almost always get mushed togeth­er. The first ques­tion is what’s the moral sta­tus of abor­tion? And as you said, we’re in a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety. We are nev­er going to have a con­sen­sus posi­tion on abor­tion, the moral sta­tus of abor­tion.

And so, we live in a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety. We live under a Constitution that sep­a­rates church and state. That led me to ques­tion two. Given that there’s nev­er going to be a con­sen­sus in the fore­see­able future on what abortion’s moral sta­tus is, what should government’s role be? And I con­tend­ed, and the League con­tend­ed, and even very Catholic mem­bers who were anti-abortion per­son­al­ly, could agree on the answer that government’s role should not choose one posi­tion on abortion’s moral sta­tus from across that broad plu­ral­is­tic spec­trum and make laws based on that one posi­tion.

Government’s role has to take into account dif­fer­ent moral views of it. And as Roe v. Wade did, it takes a lot of work. It’s very com­pli­cat­ed. But when you do it right, and I think Roe vs. Wade did it right—I mean, I’m not into all the legal technicalities—but when you do it right, you’re being able to bridge the irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences of a moral posi­tion on abor­tion. In the con­text of we’re talk­ing here about what gov­ern­ment should do, and here’s what gov­ern­ment should do, giv­en the whole con­text of the Constitution.

Anderson: Right. I think so much of that for me depends on all sides being will­ing to accept ulti­mate­ly that there is a plu­ral­i­ty. And that’s kind of what makes me some­times pes­simistic. Because—and actu­al­ly this is exact­ly the word that Lawrence Torcello would’ve used—people who are rea­son­able can say, Plurality’s inevitable.” But not all peo­ple are rea­son­able. I mean, and that’s the ter­ror of fun­da­men­tal­ism.

Francis: Or if they can’t win them over that they can enforce their way on them.

Anderson: Right.

Francis: That’s where the vio­lence comes in, and it’s not all phys­i­cal. It’s psy­cho­log­i­cal, it’s legal, etc. We shall have them always with us” I guess is my answer, that we have to fig­ure out ways to allow peo­ple to real­ize their own indi­vid­ual goods, liv­ing the way they would like, with­in the con­text of hav­ing a good pub­lic sit­u­a­tion for the whole.

To me, I’m opti­mistic about The Future, how­ev­er long it may or may not be, because I think we all have such poten­tial to real­ly do pos­i­tive things and change things for the bet­ter. And we’re always going to come up against resis­tance to that. Some resis­tance being peo­ple who con­scious­ly want to change things for what we would call the worse. Other things being the iner­tia of social cus­toms, of laws, what­ev­er. But to me, opti­mism is say­ing yeah, there’s really…you know, it’s good to get up tomor­row morn­ing. There’s good stuff to be doing, and how­ev­er long it lasts I know in my lit­tle bit of time here I’ve helped advance it.

I love Martin Luther King’s— I nev­er quote it exact­ly right, but some­thing like the moral arc of the uni­verse is long but it bends toward jus­tice. So I’m just hap­py to be adding a lit­tle weight to the bend­ing of the arc of jus­tice.


Neil Prendergast: Yeah, so what I enjoyed about this con­ver­sa­tion was that you know, she picks up some stuff that was laid out at the begin­ning of the con­ver­sa­tion, which is to think about this long arc of jus­tice. You know, the com­mit­ment she has to it is as long-standing for her as it is for John Fife, both com­mit­ted activists for decades.

Aengus Anderson: Yeah, which is a real­ly nice con­nec­tion. I love that we’ve got­ten two peo­ple cit­ing the same MLK quote here.

Micah Saul: Yeah, and it’s a good one, too. I mean, through­out the project we’ve sort of butted up against tele­o­log­i­cal ideas in terms of tech­nol­o­gy. Teleology in gen­er­al is prob­lem­at­ic, but this is a tele­ol­o­gy I can at least sup­port emo­tion­al­ly.

Anderson: It’s nice to think that things are get­ting bet­ter.

Saul: Right.

Prendergast: What I like about it, too, is that as far as kind of map­ping a con­ver­sa­tion, it is a great touch­stone. Because of course the civ­il rights move­ment touch­es both what Fife is doing, but then obvi­ous­ly lots of inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal inter­sec­tions with fem­i­nism and the women’s move­ment.

Anderson: And the oth­er con­nec­tion I sort of like with the idea of his­tor­i­cal momen­tum or tra­jec­to­ry or some­thing like that is that it real­ly gets us to why we want­ed to record this con­ver­sa­tion in the first place. Because if we look at the long arc of social change, at least here in America, we had a lot of it, and it feels like a lot of it petered off. Have we had seri­ous progress with things like the ERA? And do we still need it?

Saul: So you know, the ques­tion is like well, why? And I thought she gave some very good answers for why we still need that pro­tec­tion, activist Supreme Court jus­tices being just one.

Anderson: Right, and then all of that case law you’ve built up can just be over­turned so read­i­ly.

Saul: One can always set a new prece­dent.

Prendergast: And it seems like, I mean, some­thing that we hon­est­ly didn’t talk about but might’ve belonged in there would be just the prin­ci­ple of it. Like, you just should have that in your con­sti­tu­tion.

Saul: Right. I mean, actu­al­ly isn’t lan­guage like that already in the UN Declaration of Civil Rights? If a glob­al body has that in there, and we view our­selves as being a mod­ern nation, not mir­ror­ing that is kind of ridicu­lous.

Anderson: And so as we’re talk­ing about this, there are a whole vari­ety of rea­sons why we might still want it, whether it’s prece­dent or just…dignity. But the fact that it’s gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered to be already in effect, what do you guys think of that? Do you think that we believe the ERA’s already imple­ment­ed because…I don’t know, some sort of social frag­men­ta­tion? I mean, are we just not hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion?

Prendergast: You know, I have to say as an instruc­tor of US his­to­ry, I think it prob­a­bly has a lot to do with peo­ple con­fus­ing what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is, and think­ing that it’s some­how the Constitution.

You know, what’s real inter­est­ing to me about that is that there is this kind of inter­sec­tion between gen­der and race and the Civil Rights Act, and then the two move­ments, the women’s rights move­ment and the civ­il rights move­ment, there. In that inter­sec­tion, they kind of help each oth­er out. But one social move­ment doesn’t always help out a sib­ling social move­ment.

For exam­ple, the 14th Amendment. It estab­lish­es all sorts of rights for African Americans but is also the first time that you actu­al­ly see the word male” in the Constitution. But in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the two move­ments inter­sect rather than diverge. And so it kind of to me opens up all sorts of ques­tions about okay, well where is ERA right now, and are there per­haps ways in which it’s inter­sect­ing with oth­er social move­ments or diverg­ing?

Anderson: I mean, there’s a fas­ci­nat­ing thread to this, right, because a lot of the rea­son that the ERA was shot down orig­i­nal­ly, a lot of peo­ple were wor­ried that it was going to push the gay rights agen­da. And of course now it seems like the gay rights agenda—and she does men­tion this a lit­tle bit in the interview—it’s kind of leapfrogged ahead and it feels like there’s a lot of momen­tum there. And here we are with the sort of founder­ing ERA. So is it going to pick up any steam from gay rights?

Prendergast: I hes­i­tate to ven­ture any kind of pre­dic­tion there, giv­en how var­ied the past has been.

Anderson: Right. You know, some­thing else that we should talk about in terms of like, where the ERA stands and how it fits into our cul­ture today, I think, is the con­ver­sa­tion about big gov­ern­ment and small gov­ern­ment. And the ERA is one that it’s hard to pin down. Is this some­thing that you could por­trayed as being a small gov­ern­ment thing? It’s kind of a bul­wark of the indi­vid­ual against these larg­er sys­tems. At the same time, by guar­an­tee­ing equal­i­ty is it sort of encour­ag­ing the pro­duc­tion of larg­er gov­ern­ment? Enforcement and things like that. How does that sail in this cul­tur­al con­text?

Prendergast: Yeah, I mean I think that there’s a lot of inter­est­ing sort of ques­tions there when you do frame it that way. But my sense of things, which should not be trust­ed, is that it’s real­ly a ques­tion about gen­der and fam­i­ly. I think peo­ple have a ten­den­cy to sort of see those things as issues first before they see size of gov­ern­ment ques­tions.

Anderson: Right. I think the phi­los­o­phy in this con­ver­sa­tion wasn’t quite as exposed as it is in some of the oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. I think a lot of its implic­it here. But I think some­thing that Roberta was talk­ing about that I real­ly liked was the idea of the fam­i­ly, and what you were just say­ing, Neil, real­ly made me think of that. This threat­ens a lot of struc­tures that are… I don’t know… They’re reli­gious struc­tures. They’re cul­tur­al struc­tures. They’re ways of under­stand­ing the world.

Saul: Yeah, I mean those are the ara­tional beliefs that we keep com­ing to in this project.

Anderson: So is the ERA, then, this like…kind of Enlightenment-era lib­er­al tra­di­tion found­ed in a notion of good that isn’t per­sua­sive to a lot of peo­ple any­more?

Prendergast: It seems like what you’re say­ing about the Enlightenment and the ERA being togeth­er is that they pro­tect the rights of indi­vid­u­als. And so I think that real­ly kind of ideas about the fam­i­ly for a lot of Americans sort of trump any kind of idea about indi­vid­ual rights that might come out of the Enlightenment.

Anderson: Oh, that’s inter­est­ing.

Prendergast: I mean, you know, it’s makes sense. I mean, peo­ple expe­ri­ence fam­i­ly like it’s a felt thing. It mat­ters a lot, it’s a world of belong­ing, and you know…what the fuck is the Enlightenment? 

[All laugh.]

Anderson: Oh…and there it goes. That’s, that’s the end of the sto­ry. That is such an elo­quent way of dis­miss­ing the Enlightenment, I don’t want to talk about it any­more. So let’s talk about some­thing else.

Prendergast: Yeah, well I think anoth­er real­ly cool thing that came up in this conversation…issue of lan­guage. People are sort of not using the same def­i­n­i­tions for their terms, and that that was one of the big bar­ri­ers to the ERA sort of hav­ing trac­tion at the lev­el it’s going to need to be passed.

Saul: You know, this con­nects with every­thing else we’ve been talk­ing about, I think. The attempt to have con­ver­sa­tion with­out a shared vocab­u­lary real­ly gets in the way of cre­at­ing any sort of mean­ing­ful change. And this is a theme that’s gone through­out the project. Some peo­ple I think call it lan­guage. Other peo­ple talk about need­ing to cre­ate new shared myths. They’re all sort of inter­con­nect­ed and deeply relat­ed.

Anderson: And it’s a huge prob­lem. In a way, right, it’s kind of what we’re try­ing to address with this series. And I know a lot of peo­ple come in and they’ll lis­ten to an episode for a thinker that they know and like, but the hope is of course that they lis­ten to the next one. And the oth­er hope is that some of the inter­vie­wees lis­ten to each other’s episodes, and that we forge a lan­guage with­in the project that’s about the good.

Saul: When we start­ed the project, maybe I thought we had—mmm—one chance in a…thousand? of get­ting that. And I’m more and more think­ing that’s uh…one in a mil­lion. Fortunately and inter­est­ing­ly, this con­ver­sa­tion and the next one actu­al­ly are going to share some lan­guage and share some ideas.

Anderson: Quite a lot of them, actu­al­ly. Next we’re talk­ing to John Seager of Population Connection. And he’s going to talk a lot about—surprise—equality and repro­duc­tive rights. So, until next week. 

That was Roberta Francis, record­ed November 12, 2012 in Chatham, New Jersey. 

Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com.

Prendergast: You can fol­low us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I’m Micah Saul.

Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for lis­ten­ing.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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