Devon Hartsough (left) and Keyanna Wigglesworth of the Alice Paul Institute… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
It was the summer of 1982 in Iowa when Melissa Fadeley jumped into a car with four fellow activists and headed to Springfield. She and thousands of other protesters marched the capital, demanding that the Illinois Senate ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It had been a decadelong struggle since the ERA, also known as the women’s equality amendment, first passed in Congress, and the 1982 deadline that required ratification by 38 states was quickly approaching. Just three more states were needed; as the only northern state to not ratify, Illinois seemed like fertile fighting ground.
When Fadeley arrived, some protesters were chaining themselves to the doors of the capitol; others were so weak from their hunger strike that they had to protest from wheelchairs. Fadeley, an active member of the National Organization for Women, was passionate, determined and also had new motivation to fight for gender equality: She was pregnant with her first daughter. Unfortunately, 1982 was a disappointing year—Illinois failed to ratify the amendment, and the United States remained one of the only developed nations whose constitution fails to protect all citizens, regardless of gender.
Thirty-one years later, Fadeley’s daughter, Michelle, stood in front of the Senate Executive Committee to demand that Illinois finally pass the 28th amendment.
“It’s not even the same century as when my mom fought this battle to be considered equal under our country’s constitution,” Michelle Fadeley, president of the Illinois NOW chapter, told me in an email. “Our laws have progressed, but those laws are not guaranteed under the constitution, and it’s time that it reflect the values of our society. Women are fighting and even dying in the military under the same constitution that does not offer them the same rights as their male counterparts.”
On Thursday, Illinois took the first step toward righting a past wrong when the Senate voted to pass the amendment. The ERA is waiting on the House floor, and a vote is expected Wednesday.
Some, including members of the state Senate, believe the ERA and equality for women are “old news.” In the three decades since Melissa Fadeley first fought for the ERA, the U.S. Congress has passed numerous laws to protect women, particularly in regard to salary, reproductive rights and education. But none of these laws changes the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not officially protect all citizens regardless of gender the same way it guards against discrimination based on race and religion.
As a past board member of the Chicago NOW chapter, I’ve marched with Michelle Fadeley and other young feminists for everything from abortion rights to protesting Wal-Mart. I know the ERA is not a panacea for gender inequality. But I also know it is time for the U.S. constitution to reflect the reality of American’s values, values which say all men and women, regardless of race or religion, should be treated equally.
This isn’t a simple process. The ERA must be ratified in at least two more states before it can go back to Congress, which will decide if the 1982 deadline is valid. There are many years of legal and political struggle ahead. But Illinois can be the beginning of reinvigorating this conversation about what it means to be an American.
Niki Fritz is a RedEye special contributor. To encourage your Representative to vote “yes” on the ERA, visit chicagonow.org.