A Maine Equal Rights Amendment would give women the constitutional rights that were not imagined when Maine became a state, when its constitution was written. This is a state issue and a U.S. issue. Half of America – the female half – can rightly say that this nation has not lived up to its own principles of liberty and justice for all.

Cathy Walter of Gorham takes part in the Women’s March on Jan. 17, 2020, in Monument Square. On Tuesday at noon, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on L.D. 344: a proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sex. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The United States is the only developed nation in the world with a constitution that does not explicitly protect women’s rights. The U.S. Constitution was not intended to include women (or slaves or the poor) as full citizens when it was written in the 18th century.

Approved by Congress in 1820, the Maine Constitution, likewise, was written when women had limited rights, and it continues to fall short of protecting its citizens from sex discrimination. To correct that, a constitutional amendment is being brought before the Maine Legislature. On Tuesday at noon, the Judiciary Committee is hearing arguments for and against L.D. 344, a state constitutional amendment titled RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Explicitly Prohibit Discrimination Based on the Sex of an Individual. Twenty-six other states already have these protections in their state constitutions. Maine’s ERA is long overdue.

Because the U.S. Constitution is still silent on the fundamental legal rights of women, it is all the more important to Maine’s citizens that they are spelled out clearly in the state constitution. Because those rights are not clearly protected, women face unfair barriers to equality. Laws have not been sufficient. Why? Because without a clear constitutional basis, laws are weakened or simply not enforced. The Violence Against Women Act, the Equal Pay Act and, now, Roe v. Wade are unable to hold to their purpose without a strong constitutional basis. They can be undone by a simple legislative vote. That is what has happened for decades.

Politics has had a powerful role in abridging the civil rights of America’s women, for reasons as broad as religious beliefs, fear of women in the military, ideas about female roles in society and an ignorance of what modern women face as they have entered the workforce in record numbers, while raising children, often as single parents. In a democracy, one idea that should remain constant is that of legal equality between the sexes. Most countries have stated those rights clearly, in their founding documents. That’s what the United States advises other countries to do. Yet our own constitutions, mired in 18th-century beliefs, remain silent on women’s rights. This needs to change.

So-called “women’s issues” are those that disproportionately plague half our country. Unfair pay, limited access to medical care (including reproductive care), sexual harassment and violence, including domestic violence, and an unfair burden of child care and elder care – these are some of the issues facing many Americans. The Maine Human Rights Commission is given the mandate by the Legislature to hear certain kinds of cases of sex discrimination. Their work would be greatly empowered by the ERA. The commission would be able to rely on the clear intent of the constitution for their sex discrimination cases, rather than on a politically changing Legislature that can decide which kinds of cases to consider, based on that majority’s leanings, rather than on legal equality.

Full ratification of the ERA is being blocked by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. In Maine, the state ERA is opposed by well-funded religious interests and Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives, mostly because of their opposition to abortion rights, rights that the majority of Americans support. Women’s legal equality in Maine is being held hostage by a minority view on abortion. Maine has a chance right now to bring our state constitution into the 21st century. Let’s see it done on our watch.

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