Equal Rights: It’s Now or Never

Issue 201 — June 5, 2022

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said founding father John Adams. Yet in a classic demonstration of unearned privilege, he mocked his wife Abigail’s plea to “remember the ladies” when framing the Constitution. John averred that men would never put up with that “tyranny of the petticoat.” As if one person’s freedom reduces the other person’s freedom, when the exact opposite is actually true.

Abigail Adam’s 1776 letter to her husband, asking him to remember women’s legal equality.

Now, Roe v. Wade’s potential demise that would reverse 50 years of reproductive freedom demands leadership to get serious about remembering the ladies by ensuring a constitutional commitment to freedom, justice, and equality for all. The Equal Rights Amendment is a good start, and it has been ratified now by the requisite 38 states. But the archivist has yet to publish it as an official amendment.

White men have always had a legal and moral right to their own lives and bodily integrity, but the recently leaked SCOTUS ruling, whether it ultimately becomes the final draft or not, shows dramatically that women and all those who support gender equality must use our collective power not just to preserve an already gutted precedent but to fight forward to codify equal civil and human rights once and for all — and for everyone.

Women shouldn’t have to fight alone. This latest draconian attempt to control women is just one arm in a trifecta of assaults on democracy itself: voting rights, equal rights for women+ and LGBTQIA+ people, and reproductive rights.

Hundreds marched through downtown Portland following the leaked Roe v. Wade ruling. Photo: NPR.

While it might seem daunting to fight each battle separately, connecting the dots makes a stronger case and a more powerful coalition to establish full intersectional gender equity in power, pay, and leadership positions.

This is not a mere ideological argument. The media’s incessant false balance in reporting only distracts us from the reality: this is a raw political power play to keep over half the population in a secondary position.

What is the “other side” to equality, after all?

My interest in politics was kindled by the push to ratify the ERA in 1972. My 30-year career with Planned Parenthood began in 1974 because I realized from personal experience that if a woman can’t own her body, including whether and when to give it over to childbearing, she has no equality, and thus no power to determine anything else about her life.

The stories I heard from women there, and in the decades since, are little acknowledged by our culture.

The founder of Luminary, Cate Luzio, told her story on social media about being raped at 14. Although she didn’t become pregnant, she shared the agony of waiting to get her next period and how knowing that she had choices was the one small source of comfort. Many women, like Congresswoman Cori Bush who told her story in Elle Magazine along with other female members of Congress, weighed her options at a time in her life when she knew full well she wasn’t able to care for a child. She chose abortion not from a place of victimhood but from a place of responsibility and moral judgment.

Five U.S. representatives share their own stories of reproductive justice in Elle Magazine.

The leaked SCOTUS ruling has finally cracked open the egg showing America that the debate about Roe is not about abortion but rather about power and patriarchal white supremacist control over women, especially poor women and people of color on whom the consequences will fall most harshly. This crack also confirmed that the Court is currently as politicized as elected bodies, in contrast to its Constitutional mandate.

Voting rights, the equal rights amendment (ERA), and reproductive rights are linked. Make no mistake, when Roe falls, so will the right to contraception, marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights, and any number of rights not explicitly named in the constitution, but affirmed by prior courts.

The solution is not about saving Roe; that ship has sailed. This isn’t even about health care. It’s about codifying the human and civil rights to make our own childbearing decisions free from government interference. And free from the arrogance and disrespect of those who want to keep women unequal socially and economically despite — or because of — the progress we have made.

Act accordingly. You have the power.

Myself, my daughter and friends at an ERA march.

Are you registered to vote? Do you know where and how you can make sure your vote is counted, given the many new laws aimed to suppress voting, especially among people of color? Are you allocating your donations of time and treasure to support causes and candidates that will support your human and civil rights to make your own childbearing decisions and ensure your voting rights? Are you amplifying the stories that can rally meaningful support around these issues?

We must each lead now. We can demand bold leadership from businesses, especially from female executives who would never have had their stellar careers without the ability to plan their childbearing. We can use our clout to insist politicians, civic leaders, and concerned citizens speak up for policies that respect women.

Never forget that elections have consequences. We must mobilize to win crushing victories at the ballot box and then codify reproductive justice and put equal rights for women into the Constitution at last. For to quote John Adams again, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” Little did he know that his own failure to recognize the rights of half the population would, if not rectified, contribute to that dire prediction.

So instead of allowing that to happen, let us seize the moment for leadership to rise and build a new jurisprudence that puts human and civil rights at the center of a society that values and trusts people’s moral authority to make their own childbearing decisions, and cares for its children not just in the womb but after they are born.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

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Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.