Decades later, Nevada Legislature tries for a do-over to ratify Equal Rights Amendment

Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman knew her resolution was 35 years late. But that wasn’t the point.

The resolution called on Nevada to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which came close to becoming part of the U.S. Constitution, but never did because fewer than three-quarters of the states ratified it by the 1982 deadline set by Congress. It needed three more states.

Spearman, a Democrat, had sponsored the same resolution two years ago, when Republicans controlled the Legislature and a committee voted it down. But she pushed on.

On Wednesday at 3:59 p.m. — Spearman checked the time — the same committee voted 4 to 1 to send the resolution to the full senate.

If Nevada goes on to ratify the ERA, it would be the first state to do so since 1982. Ratification would also be at least a symbolic victory for people who believe the rights of women should be enshrined in the Constitution.

The ERA is short, with the heart of it reading: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

It was first proposed in the 1920s, but Congress didn’t pass it until 1972. Then the 1982 deadline for ratification by 38 states expired.

That defeat was due in large part to the efforts of the Eagle Forum, a conservative lobbying group, and its founder, Phyllis Schlafly, who warned that ratification would lead to women being drafted, an idea that President Carter floated in his 1980 State of the Union address.

Some feminists also attributed the outcome to the dominance of men in business and politics.

Since the early 1990s, supporters of the amendment have been trying to get three of the 15 state legislatures that rejected it to reverse course.

In Virginia, one chamber approved ratification while the other refused on multiple occasions. Illinois had a similar scenario play out in 2014.

Currently, Nevada is one of eight states with resolutions calling for ratification. In six of those states — Utah, Arizona, Missouri, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina — at least one house of the legislature is controlled by Republicans, who have opposed the idea.

In Arizona, where Republicans control both houses, Pamela Powers Hannley, a Democratic state representative who is sponsoring the resolution there, said it can’t get a legislative hearing.

Republicans “know what will happen if it gets to a floor debate,” she said. “They’ll have to explain to their wives, sisters and daughters why they don’t deserve equal pay. They don’t want to have to do that.”

She said her state should look to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as a “role model.” Before becoming the first woman on the court, O’Connor served two terms in the Arizona Legislature and supported the ERA.

Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis said his resolution in that state’s GOP-dominated Legislature was also unlikely to get out of a committee, but he said he hoped Nevada could become the 36th state and start the movement over again.

“This is one case where I hope what happens in Nevada doesn’t stay in Nevada,” Dabakis said.

In Nevada, where the November election gave Democrats full control of the Legislature, lawmakers appear to be forging ahead.

Senate President Aaron Ford says that “this go-around, equal rights will be ratified in Nevada.” House Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson says that passage of the amendment is a priority and that Democrats are “doubling down on the notion we stand for equal rights.”

Last week, a State Senate committee held a hearing before a packed chamber in the Capitol and took testimony by video feed from Las Vegas in what seemed like a time capsule from the 1970s. Members of the public wore iconic green-and-white buttons reading “ERA yes.”

Marlene Lockhard, representing the Nevada Women’s Lobby, read remarks made in 1975 by Sue Wagner, who at the time was a Republican member of the State Assembly and had pushed for ratification:

“It has been difficult for me to accept the fact that I must stand here … 200 years since the founding of this country and debate an issue so basic, so just, so fair and so American as legal rights for all. But I must and I shall for as long as it is necessary.”

One Nevada resident, Leslie Sexton, testified that her mother chose her name for a pragmatic reason: On paper, Leslie could be the name of either a man or woman.

“If my name ever appeared on a list, I might have a better chance of equality or being chosen for something," Sexton said. “Back then, a female name automatically meant you went to the bottom — or lower than men.”

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said in an interview that Nevada could set the table for action on the ERA and that the push is driven by the current political climate.

“I think what is really going on is women in this country are extremely energized,” O’Neill said. “Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million, and part of the reason she won is she ran a proudly feminist and inclusive campaign.”

Some experts have argued that Congress could set a new deadline for ratification of the ERA if the states show interest.

The Constitution could also be amended through a national convention. But changing the supreme law of the land is not easy. Of the 11,699 attempts as of the beginning of this year, it has been amended 27 times.

Jeffrey Abramson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas, said that he doubted the current Republican-controlled Congress would propose a new ERA but that the push to ratify could be a rallying cry for the midterm election.

The massive turnout at the Women’s March after the inauguration of President Trump last month suggests that a revived ERA would have significant support by the states, he said.

But the ERA still faces steadfast opposition, including from some women.

Echoing Schlafly, who died last year, Janine Hansen of the Nevada Eagle Forum said ratification would lead to women being subjected to a military draft and the elimination of Social Security benefit for wives who choose to not work.

“The feminist movement has tried to eradicate this homemaker benefit,” Hansen said. “It doesn’t fit into the mantra that every woman should be a working woman.”

James Settelmeyer, a Republican Nevada state senator and the sole vote against the resolution after Wednesday’s committee hearing, did not say whether he supported the ERA.

But efforts to revive it should start with Congress rather than states trying to ratify it decades after the deadline, he said.

“It does no harm,” he said of the effort. “But it does no good either.”

david.montero@latimes.com

Twitter: @davemontero

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