Nevada’s Revival of the Equal Rights Amendment Is More About the Present Than the Past

Genevie Durano

Protesters at the Women’s March on Washington

My mother explained she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment on the logical grounds that enshrining gender equality in the Constitution would elevate a man to a woman’s level. But some menfolk in Nevada and beyond need a little elevating, especially those who don’t pick up on why the ERA mattered then, matters now—and wound up being voted on in the Nevada legislature 35 years after the clock supposedly ran out on its passage.

History is involved and, as usual, it’s multi-layered. The current arguments of lawmakers and witnesses against the state senate resolution resembled those used in the 1970s when Congress sent the amendment to the states: Women would lose their “advantages” and could be drafted, and the family unit will suffer. Also, State Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson says the Fourteenth Amendment grants women equal rights already, and wouldn’t it be nice if his fellow Republicans saw the Fourteenth that expansively?

Ah, memories. When Bill Clinton supported members of the LGBT community serving in the military, opponents invoked almost the same language used in the late 1940s when Harry Truman ordered military units desegregated: Our defenses would suffer if different groups served together. Opponents of ERA, like opponents of gay marriage (often the same people) who make such arguments, don’t seem to have much faith in the strength of families and marriages, or they might not be so fearful for their future.

As for feminine “advantages,” this debate has been around even longer than Wayne Newton. In 1908, in Muller v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld restrictions on how many hours women could work. It seemed like a great idea: The state had a right to protect its citizens, and women had fewer protections than men. But as Justice David Brewer, who would have been perfect for Trump’s cabinet if he weren’t dead (and Senate Republicans would confirm him anyway if nominated) wrote for the court, “That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious.”

Such thinking has remained at the heart of the battle over women’s rights: Men and women are different, and not just in terms of who can have their own email server. Feminists have disagreed over whether women should have special protections and, if so, what they should be. Anti-feminists have worried those protections will disappear, instead of suggesting that all of us should have safer working conditions, equal pay and family leave.

It’s also redolent of the previous ERA debate in Nevada. Women’s rights advocates like Republican-turned-Democrat Jean Ford and lifelong Republican Sue Wagner supported it. Conservative women, especially from religious communities—the Mormon Church was especially vocal—disagreed with it. And it became a political hot potato.

Such thinking has remained at the heart of the battle over women’s rights: Men and women are different, and not just in terms of who can have their own email server.

The ERA passed the state assembly twice and failed in the state Senate. In 1977, the Senate voted 10—8 against it, but Lt. Gov. Bob Rose, a Democrat about to run for governor, announced that the two absent senators counted as “yes” votes, creating a tie, which he broke by voting in favor of the ERA. It then died in the assembly. Rose’s ambitions didn’t survive either: Republicans blistered him for backing the ERA and the maneuver that enabled him to vote, he lost his race, and an advisory question on the 1978 ballot led to a 2—1 margin against the ERA. Wagner tried to bring it back, but it was over.

For the time being, anyway. Now we’re at another historical moment. The day after the inauguration, millions of women (and many men) marched for their rights—including about 15,000 in Las Vegas and 10,000 in Reno. Organizers and participants have been trying to maintain the momentum. That’s part of what this vote on ERA is designed to do.

Yes, it’s a long shot. Although Congress specified the amendment would be dead if not approved by 1982, the Supreme Court has said Congress can change the deadline. This Republican Congress is unlikely to do so, unless Vladimir Putin can be persuaded to support it. Still, the legislature is reminding activists of where their elected officials stand and how misogynistic some of them sound. That can be useful, but also dangerous politically. Not all women back the ERA, and some could be driven to support its opponents even more strongly.

Political calculus can change on a dime. My moderately conservative mother might not have supported the ERA back then, but today she might think differently.  Let’s just say I wouldn’t have wanted to be the man or the candidate who said he was going to grab her ….

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.