‘Remember the Ladies’

‘Remember the Ladies’

Laura Keller started teaching at Westview Elementary School in 1972, the same year the ERA was approved in Congress — almost 50 years after it was introduced.

Keller retired in 2003, and the ERA has yet to be ratified by the necessary 38 states required by law.

But Illinois, the only northern state not to ratify the ERA back in the day, became No. 37 last month when both the state Senate and House approved it by the necessary three-fifths majority — with support from legislators in both parties.

For Keller, it was a huge step in a decades-old struggle.Blog Photo

“To be involved, to see all the work by all the people all those years who worked on this — it’s just very gratifying,” Keller said Friday.

The wording of the original amendment is straightforward: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support that language, and many are surprised to find it’s not already enshrined in the Constitution.

It’s not for lack of trying. Back in 1776, Abigail Adams famously urged her husband to “remember the ladies” in the new nation’s “code of laws.”

“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation,” Abigail Adams warned.

John Adams and his fellow congressmen did not listen.

The original amendment was drawn up by suffragist Alice Paul in 1923 and introduced every year in Congress thereafter.

The two major political parties didn’t adopt it as a platform until the early 1940s, and it wasn’t until the civil rights era that the movement gained steam.

Keller got involved in 1978, reviving the local chapter of NOW — the National Organization for Women — and participating in marches in Chicago and Springfield on behalf of the ERA.Blog Photo

The ERA fight in Illinois was intense, with sit-ins and hunger strikes at the Capitol and marches across the state.

When it failed to win the three-fifths majority in 1982, a group known as the Grass-roots Group of Second Class Citizens splashed pig’s blood on the Capitol steps.

“I was not in that group,” Keller recalled. “But I felt that sometimes those radical factions are needed to make everyone else look more reasonable.”

Keller was active in marches across the state, and has a box full of buttons, T-shirts and newspaper clippings to prove it.

As head of NOW, she worked with the Women’s Political Caucus and the ERA Coalition. Other local women also played key roles, such as former Urbana City Council member Esther Patt and former Champaign County board member Jan Anderson.

But the effort ultimately failed in the state Capitol.

“We often had the majority, we just never had a supermajority in both houses,” she said.

So what’s changed since 1982?

For one thing, “there’s a lot more women in the state legislature,” Keller said. “Back then the number was so tiny.”

Women now make up about a third of the General Assembly. Female senators formed a coalition to push the measure through the state Senate this year, Keller said.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, was on the floor when the measure failed in 1982 and again in May when it finally passed.

The January 2017 Women’s March, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and a general rise in activism have also played a role, Keller said.

“I just think the climate’s different,” Keller said. “And probably people are more savvy.”

Keller was thrilled when the Illinois Senate finally approved the ERA in April, 43-12.

On the night of the May 30 House vote, she was at an event and had her phone off, but found a deluge of emails when she turned it on.

The vote was tight, with the “yes” count moving slowly from 69 to 70 and then 71, the minimum needed for passage, bringing a roar of approval. The final count was 72-45.

“I knew it would be close either way,” Keller said. “We needed to have bipartisanship to have it pass.”

Backers still need one more state to ratify the ERA — Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina have been floated — but legal hurdles remain.

The ratification deadline imposed by Congress — June 30, 1982 — passed long ago.

Proponents argue that the deadline isn’t relevant, citing the 27th Amendment to limit mid-year pay raises for Congress, which passed 203 years after it was introduced in 1789.

The Constitution also doesn’t mention deadlines, Keller said.

Two joint resolutions introduced in Congress would remove the deadline.

Proponents could also start over, by introducing a new ERA bill in Congress to approve the ERA and getting it ratified by 38 states.

“With this climate right now, it would be very difficult,” Keller said.

But she noted that it took 100 years for women to get the vote.

She also pointed to an ad placed in The News-Gazette 36 years ago, the day after Illinois failed to ratify the ERA: “Yesterday was their deadline, not our’s! ... The fight for equality has just begun!”

“We will never give up,” Keller said. “I’m hopeful that I might live to see it. I’m taking my vitamins.”

Some of the arguments against the ERA in the 1970s were that it would force women to sign up for the draft, force them to maintain careers outside the home and require unisex bathrooms.

Women now serve in the military and are fully entrenched in the work force, and unisex bathrooms are a common sight. Society has not fallen apart.

Others argue that the ERA isn’t needed because the Civil Rights Act and other laws already address equality.

“Then it won’t hurt anything either,” Keller responds. “And laws can change and go away.”

Our daughters are sometimes shocked to hear that a woman wasn’t appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court until 1981 (Sandra Day O’Connor), or that the first woman in space didn’t come until 1983 (Sally Ride), or that it was 1997 before there was a woman secretary of state (Madeleine Albright).

“Young women just can’t believe the kind of things that we took for granted because it had always been that way,” Keller said. “They’re going to be less tolerant of not being in the constitution.”


Staff writer Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.


Top: Laura Keller looks through old shirts and other mementos from the ERA fight in the 1970s and '80s. Stephen Haas/News-Gazette

Bottom: A selection of Laura Keller's ERA buttons. Julie Wurth/News-Gazette

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