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