“Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Thus begins the Equal Rights Amendment which, nearly 100 years after it was first proposed, can finally be adopted into the Constitution. On Wednesday, January 16, Virginia voted to ratify the ERA, becoming the 38th state to do so and crossing the national threshold for a two-thirds majority needed to adopt an amendment into the Constitution.
And we have plenty of women, including Jewish women, to thank for making that happen.
The ERA was written by suffragist Alice Paul in 1921 and introduced to Congress in 1923, just years after some women were granted the right to vote in 1920. The ERA was introduced almost every single year to Congress, but it wasn’t until the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1960s and ‘70s when it really gained national attention. It was first introduced to the House and Senate, where it was passed in both, but only 35 of the necessary 38 states voted to ratify it. In 1982, even after the original deadline for the states to vote was extended, the ERA expired.
But that didn’t stop the ERA from regaining national attention. Thirty-five years after it officially expired, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify in 2017, followed by Illinois a year later in 2018. And finally, in the historic 2019 elections, Virginia flipped their house to blue, setting them up to become the final state needed to vote to ratify the ERA in 2020.
The Va Senate just joined the House in approving the ERA resolution setting up the Commonwealth as the pivotal 38th state needed. The question now: can the 1982 set by Congress. deadline be altered? @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/C6EYovqr2w
— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) January 15, 2020
This renewed fight for women’s rights was spearheaded by some absolutely badass Jewish women, and I am honored to introduce them to you.
Belle Winestine began her political career not just as a supporter of the ERA, but actually as a suffragist and journalist, long before the ERA was even a concept. She was daughter of two Jewish immigrants and raised in a practicing Jewish household. While at school, she founded the Women’s Student Government Association at the University of Wisconsin before going on to start the women’s suffrage movement for the entire state of Montana. It was while she was president of the League of Women Voters of Montana in the 1920s that she lobbied for the passage of the ERA.
Bella Abzug began her life as an activist in Hebrew school, where she learned to use her voice, even from behind the mechitzah, or gender barrier. A Hebrew school teacher recruited her to join a left-wing labor Zionist organization called Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir where she spoke passionately up and down the east coast about a progressive Jewish homeland. And when she was not permitted to say the kaddish for her father after he died, something women were not traditionally allowed to do during religious services, Abzug said them anyways. No one stopped her, understanding that her chutzpah could not be argued with.
Abzug began her political career early, serving as Student Council President at Hunter College. She won a scholarship to Columbia Law School where she had an impeccable record and went on to become the editor of the Law Review. After, she used her degree to represent various unions around New York City. After a robust career in grassroots organizing around leftist and racial justice issues, Abzug ran for Congress in 1970 at age 50 on a women’s rights and pro-peace platform, the first woman to do so at the time. Her first vote was for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Of course, this leading lady makes this list. A life-long activist, journalist, and feminist, Steinem has been on the frontlines of some of the most important issues facing women since the 1960s, including, of course, the Equal Rights Amendment. In May of 1970, she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee and told them, “We won’t be silent anymore.”
Forty-seven years later, in a conversation with the Yellow Roses, a group of middle-school girls working to ratify the ERA, Steinem had this to say: “Hope comes first. Change comes next.”
Steinem describes her Jewish identity through the lens of an activist. Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother, she says, “Never in my life have I identified myself as a Christian, but wherever there is antisemitism, I identify as a Jew.” She identifies with the underdog and fighting spirit of American Jewry.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg truly doesn’t need much of an introduction, but she’s so incredible I’m giving her one anyway. The definition of a trailblazer, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her class of 500 at Harvard Law School. After transferring to Columbia, she was invited to join the Law Review and was tied for first in her class. After teaching at Rutgers University, Ginsburg became involved with sex-discrimination cases with the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. After this, her distinguished career fighting sexism through the law lead her to the Supreme Court.
Throughout her career, Notorious RBG has been a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment:
“The amendment would eliminate the historical impediment to unqualified judicial recognition of equal rights and responsibilities for men and women as constitutional principle; and it would serve as a clear statement of the nation’s moral and legal commitment to a system in which women and men stand as full and equal individuals before the law.”
Ginsberg has a long history of invoking Jewish thought in her work as a judge: “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest…the command from Deuteronomy: ‘tzedek, tzedek, tirdof’ — ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they ‘may thrive.’”
Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman
Political activist and New York native Elizabeth Holtzman started her career as a lawyer fighting for Democratic affairs before being elected to the House of Representatives, beating out the 50-year-old male incumbent Emanuel Celler in 1972. At the time, she was the youngest woman to ever be elected to the House at age 32.
During her time representing Brooklyn’s 16th district, Rep. Holtzman introduced the crucial bill that extended the ERA’s deadline, giving states more time to vote to ratify it before it expired. Upon Virginia’s vote to ratify, she said, “It’s been a long time coming, far too long. You can’t stop the progress of freedom, liberty and equality. You might try to detour it, you might try to block it, but in the end it’s going to win.”
During her political career, she was named to the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust and received honors by the National Council of Jewish Women, the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, the Brooklyn Coalition for Soviet Jewry, and more.
Ninety-nine years after the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment, Virginia became the 38th and final state to vote to ratify. But this historic vote was made even more extraordinary due to the unprecedented make-up of the state’s legislature. After a feminist wave in 2019, the state flipped it’s traditionally republican House to blue and subsequently elected Eileen Fisher Corn as Speaker of the House, making her the first Jewish woman to fill the role.
After casting her vote, she said, “For the Women of Virginia and the Women of America. The ERA has passed the House! Equal truly means equal.”
Women under the constitution
Unfortunately, what comes next remains to be seen. The deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment expired over 30 years ago before it reached the threshold to be signed into law. Before Virginia voted to ratify, many activists speculated that it would make the most sense to reintroduce the ERA to Congress, fight for its passage there, and then re-release it to the States where it could be voted on again. While some states would undoubtedly vote to pass it, such as Hawaii — the first state to vote yes within just hours of it being passed in Congress — other states that originally voted to ratify may no longer do so.
But if this generation of Jewish women activists has anything to do with it, the Equal Rights Amendment will soon become a constitutional amendment.