Wilmington’s city council discusses ratification of the ERA in North Carolina

Abigail Celoria, Assistant Culture Editor

On Jan. 18, the Wilmington City Council unanimously passed the resolution calling for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment with seven “yea” votes from Mayor Pro Tem Magaret Haynes, Mayor Bill Saffo, and Councilmembers Charlie Rivenbark, Clifford Barnett, Kevin Spears, Luke Waddell and Neil Anderson. The city’s resolution is part of a growing movement across North Carolina petitioning the General Assembly to ratify the amendment.

This proposed amendment to the Constitution would become the 28th if ratified and calls for the legal guarantee of equal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Almost 50 years since its first proposal to state legislatures in 1972, it is again receiving attention as states appeal for Congress to remove the initial ratification deadline.

Several city councils throughout the state of North Carolina are again discussing the ERA, hoping to encourage the North Carolina General Assembly to meet and ratify it. The passage of the amendment in Virginia in 2020 met the three-fourth requirement for passage, leading states that had not passed it prior to the ratification deadline to consider bolstering the renewed effort for the ERA. North Carolina lawmakers have been petitioning for its ratification every year since 2015, but the state legislature has not taken official action yet. The increased attention it is receiving, though, is likely to encourage a General Assembly vote soon.

Though it has now accrued the necessary three-fourth state votes, the ERA still has not been passed due to the ratification deadline Congress placed on the amendment. It set a seven-year deadline ending on June 20, 1982. Out of the 38 votes needed by that time, only 35 states managed to vote for it, North Carolina not being one of them. Thus, the ERA remained unpassed. The recent resurgence in amendment support brought it before the public once again. Nevertheless, lawmakers question Congress’ ability to set a ratification deadline, as there is no specific precedent that supports this action.

Within the first year of the ERA’s voting period, 22 states moved for ratification, with eight more approvals in 1973. However, the booming support which the amendment had initially been met with slowed to a crawl as the ERA attracted an anti-feminist campaign led by Phyllis Schlafly. Claiming that the ERA would strip women of various protections, such as the status of housewife or exclusion from the military draft, she mobilized a conservative force against it. Five states even attempted to rescind their decisions, though it is up for debate whether this is legally possible. The ERA seemed successfully beaten, with action throughout the next few decades yielding scant results.

Town Hall in Downtown Wilmington. (Lillianne Hogsten)

However, the amendment remained a topic in Congressional meetings. Many congressional women and allies continued their support until it once again gained state-level traction in recent years. In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify. Illinois followed as the 37th in 2018, and finally Virginia as the 38th in 2020. Decades later, the three-fourths vote has been met.

Mayor Pro Tem Haynes specifically sponsored the topic, advocating for it before the rest of the council. Both the local League of Women Voters and the Wilmington and New Hanover County Commission for Wilmington had approached her about bringing the ERA before the council, and her support turned to action at the Jan. 18 meeting. She read the official document drawn up by the county to reflect the city of Wilmington’s stance on the resolution to be voted on by all members of the council.

Its conclusion states: “Now, therefore, be it resolved that the city council of the city of Wilmington calls on the North Carolina General Assembly to ratify the ERA in order to join the growing list of states supporting a guarantee of equal constitutional rights to all citizens without regard to their sex or gender, and that the city council of the city of Wilmington calls on the United States Senate to support the validity of certification by the archivist by joining with the United States House passing the bipartisan bill USSJR1, Senate Joint Resolution 1, removing the time limit on the states for ratification.”

The ERA’s ratification is now an active campaign in many states that had not previously ratified it, and several state legislatures have turned their attention to Congress with efforts to remove the amendment from under the 1982 deadline. During the 117th Congress, lead sponsor Rep. Jackie Speier introduced 2021 the House Joint Resolution 17 in 2021.

The resolution passed on March 17, 2021, with a vote of 222 to 204. This success catalyzed forward momentum for the removal of the time limit, with a mirror resolution waiting on a vote in the Senate. This is a historic moment in America as bipartisan support moves against obstacles to campaign for the ERA’s ratification. It is an ongoing fight. North Carolina is amongst the states that have not yet ratified the amendment, making Wilmington’s city council’s decision in support of the ERA’s ratification this Tuesday one of national significance.

While women benefit from more rights now than in the 1920s and the 1970s, there is no consistent constitutional foundation for the laws and precedents concerning matters of sex discrimination. Introducing this into the Constitution will provide an unequivocal standard for the protection of citizens. The city of Wilmington will now be a part of this campaign across North Carolina as many counties petition the General Assembly to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and join in a future that actively protects women’s rights in America.