President Obama Honors Women’s Fight For Equality on Equal Pay Day

*The following is an opinion column by R Muse*

It has been 240 years since Founding Father Thomas Jefferson created the Declaration of Independence, and for each and every one of those 240 years America has rejected the idea that “all (men) are created equal.” Rich people are significantly “more equal” than the poor and middle class, white people are incredibly more equal than people of color, and men are damn sure more equal than women.

It was 147 after the Founders signed Jefferson’s famous document that two American women, Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman created what was to be the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that was introduced in Congress in 1923. After 147 years, the two women concluded that after a century-and-a-half, it was high time for Congress to make Jefferson’s immortal declaration a reality for women. They assumed that there was no better way than to create a Constitutional Amendment that guarantees that all Americans are equal under purview of the law of the land.

It has been 93 years since Congress first considered the ERA, but Jefferson’s declaration is still not true and if Republicans, the devout, and nasty patriarchs have their way women will never enjoy equal rights with men any more than they will enjoy pay equity. It is an issue that President Barack Obama is bringing to the fore today, April 12th; the day designated as “equal pay day.”

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama will “designate a new national monument today at a historic location in Washington, D.C. to honor the movement for women’s equality.” It is no coincidence that the President chose “equal pay day” to dedicate the new Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. The purpose is “to protect the iconic house that has served as the headquarters for the National Woman’s Party since 1929. From this house, known in recent years as the Sewall-Belmont House, members of the Party led the movement for women’s equality, authoring more than 600 pieces of federal, state and local legislation in support of equal rights; including equal pay.”

The White House press release explained that the President chose today, Equal Pay Day, to dedicate the new monument because “it is the date in the current year that represents the extra days a typical woman working full-time would have to work just to make the same as a typical man did in the previous year.” This is not just a one-off for the President to acknowledge women’s plight in the workplace. Equal pay, like equal rights, has been one of the President’s “top priorities” since taking office in 2009 when he signed “his first piece of legislation as President, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.”

He also “created the National Equal Pay Task Force, called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, issued an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against employees who discuss or inquire about their compensation, and worked with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to better target enforcement of equal pay laws though enhanced employer reporting of pay data.”

President Obama is well aware that the gender pay gap is economically devastating for women and their families; particularly women of color and LGBT women. As Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette wrote; there is a direct correlation between one in five children going hungry and women being underpaid compared to their male counterparts. Arquette rightly stated what many Americans, including some women, are acutely aware of; “Until equal rights are guaranteed in our Constitution, wage inequality and other discriminatory practices affecting women in America will continue unabated.”

It is hard to imagine who these people are, but many Americans labor under the false belief that women’s equality is already enshrined in the Constitution as a basic human right in a decidedly patriarchal society. That is just not the case and it is precisely why America needs a “special” Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The men running the country, especially the conservative Christian men and their Stockholm Syndrome-affected conservative Christian women have to have it spelled out in black and white that equality cannot be denied on the basis of gender. If they could accept that simple premise, the ERA would not have “been batted around and knocked down since its introduction in 1923 and would not still be awaiting passage after 93 years.”

Because America was created specifically, and continues, to be a patriarchal society, the ERA has always been highly controversial; not as some like to claim because it is difficult to know exactly what equality for women even means. It means that women are equal to men and nothing more or nothing less which is exactly why the ERA is still not a part of the Constitution.

One historian, Judith Sealander, claimed it was “feminist against feminist” that caused the eventual defeat of the ERA. That seems like so much bovine excrement because men have controlled Congress and state legislatures since America’s inception. However, there is a certain level of veracity to Ms. Sealander’s assertion.

The ERA eventually passed both houses of Congress and was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification in 1972. It actually seemed on pace for quick ratification by the states until a malcontent woman, Phyllis Schlafly incited and mobilized conservative women to oppose equal rights for all women. Schlafly, a staunch conservative whose raison d’être was keep women held captive to traditional gender roles, claimed the ERA was created specifically to disadvantage housewives; the only position she claims all women are qualified and were born to fulfill.

Schlafly’s anti-women’s crusade was successful and while Congress set a ratification deadline of March 22, 1979, while 35 of the 38 states needed to ratify the amendment did so, pressure from conservative Christians convinced five states to rescind their ratifications and the rest is history; women are still not equal to men in 21st Century America.

Although it is true women do not enjoy pay equity with men, it is not the only issue that drives the inequality they suffer simply for being unfortunate enough to be born female in a patriarchal society. Even in the 21st Century, women cannot safely make their own healthcare choices, are not equally represented in government, and are at the mercy of conservative Christian men who deem it is their biblical right to control when they give birth.

Conservatives love comparing women’s “blessed rights” as Americans to women living in Muslim nations, but that is absurd. It is true that women are not being beheaded for being raped, wanting out of a marriage or speaking out against harsh religious laws and they do not yet have to wear head-to-toe covering. But if no small number of conservative Christians had their way American women would suffer the exact same consequences as women in harsh Muslim theocracies; especially for demanding equal rights.

What is still a bone of contention is that no-one in government is willing to acknowledge that the gross inequalities plaguing American women are, like many atrocities, borne of adherence to religion. Yes, it is obvious that women need and deserve equal pay for equal work, but they also need and damn sure deserve precisely the same equal rights that men enjoy.

It is high time America take immediate steps to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s immortal declaration that all Americans are created equal. As much as one hopes President Obama’s actions today to honor the movement for women’s equality will have even a minuscule effect on the equal pay issue, until there is an Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution, women will continue being treated exactly like conservative Christians and their Republican patriarchs insist; as second class citizens serving as birth machines and underpaid servants.

Actress Patricia Arquette created a petition here to demand Congress take action and pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

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