In a move that may help enact the long-delayed Equal Rights Amendment, which would put women on equal footing in the U.S. Constitution that serves as the bedrock for the nation’s government, all four of Maine’s federal lawmakers support the extension of a deadline for its approval.

States shown in green have approved the ERA. Those in white have not. Alice Paul Institute

No other state’s congressional delegation offers such unanimous and bipartisan support for the measure.

The ERA, which seemed dead decades ago, suddenly has new life as Democrats in Virginia, who captured control of its legislature in this month’s election, vow to push through the proposal in January.

If they do, it would make Virginia the 38th state to endorse the amendment, enough to meet the three-fourths requirement to change the Constitution.

“The question is no longer if, but when. We will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment!” tweeted U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who introduced a bill with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to try to clear a path for the measure.

It’s not going to be simple, though.

In 1972, with U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, supporting the proposal, Congress approved the ERA and its promise that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Congress set a 1979 deadline for the states to endorse it.

In 1978, with the amendment’s momentum stalled, Congress agreed to give the states three more years to ratify it.

“Ten years is a reasonable time for the ERA,” U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said at the time. “This is no ordinary constitutional amendment. We are dealing with the rights of over half the people in the country.”

Dismissing a Republican argument that the deadline could not be prolonged once set, Bayh declared, “It has been clear in every court decision and in every action of the U.S. Congress that the Congress has the authority to determine what is a reasonable time for ratification of a constitutional amendment.”

Despite Maine’s 1974 backing of the amendment, it fell just shy of the three-fourths of states needed, seemingly leaving the proposal dead in the water. For more than three decades after its failure, debate over the amendment largely ceased.

A button worn by supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

Supporters kept introducing new versions of the ERA in Congress without success. Then some backers got the idea of reviving the old push rather than promoting a new one.

As a result, in the past couple of years, Nevada and Illinois approved the 1972 version for the first time, with supporters arguing the time limit was merely verbiage by legislators that ought to count for nothing. Virginia’s almost certain approval when its new legislative session begins in January would, if they’re right, make the ERA the law of the land.

Legal observers are divided about the issue, which would almost certainly wind up in the hands of the federal courts to decide.

Meanwhile, though, lawmakers on Capitol Hill who support the ERA are pushing another angle to help make the ERA law. They want to remove the deadline for its passage entirely.

Most of the Democrats in the U.S. House have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure, including U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden of Maine, but only a few senators have done the same.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Angus King, a Maine independent, are among the four who have agreed to endorse the Senate’s version of the measure.

“Maine ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1974,” Collins said Tuesday. “It’s past time for other states to do the same. Congress should remove this roadblock that could impede the full ratification of the ERA.”

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a prepared statement that his panel plans Wednesday to take action on the proposal to drop the time limits on ERA passage.

“Congress created this deadline and, it is clear, Congress has every authority to remove it now,” Nadler said. “After decades of work by tireless advocates, it is time for Congress to act and clear the way for Virginia, or any other state, to finally ratify the ERA and for discrimination on the basis of sex to be forever barred by the Constitution.”

The House will likely go along with the decision of Nadler’s panel.

What happens in the Senate is less clear, particularly since Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has been keeping almost every bill from consideration.

Cardin and Murkowski are the Senate bill’s chief sponsors, with King and Collins also on board. Senate Democrats are expected to support the bill as well.

Its passage would require more GOP support, but that might be possible. Collins and Murkowski are longtime ERA supporters and firm opponents of the bill are scarce.

“There should never be a time limit to women’s equality,” Murkowski said last summer, according to Maryland Matters, a news site. “So let’s get that out of the way. Let’s move towards full ratification and let’s finish this unfinished business.”

There are a host of legal issues likely to be raised should Congress opt to drop its old 1982 deadline for the ERA’s passage.

One of them arose when five states that approved the amendment soon after its submission for ratification — Nebraska, Tennessee Idaho, Kentucky, and South Dakota  — voted again before the 1982 deadline to rescind their approval.

Whether they can do that or not has never been resolved by courts. At the time, the only court case pondering the matter was tossed out as moot once the deadline passed without enough states giving the ERA a thumbs up.

However, Congress refused to recognize efforts by two states to rescind their backing of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, a precedent that may matter.

If it does come down to a court fight, there’s at least one justice on the Supreme Court unlikely to shoot down the ERA.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once told the National Press Club she would like to see the amendment approved.

Legislation, she said, “can be repealed, it can be altered. So I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion — that women and men are persons of equal stature — I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.”

Text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.


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