ERA in the Statehouse, then and now
Watching the debate on the Equal Rights Amendment last week in the Illinois House was a true case of déjà vu. Some 40 years ago, I was covering similar debates in the General Assembly as a young reporter for United Press International.
When I realized how many years had passed, I was ashamed of my state. How could blue Illinois, surrounded by a red sea in the 2016 election, have taken all this time to pass what seems so basic? How could Illinois not have approved the same rights for the whole country that we have had in our state constitution since 1970? How could it be that my daughter, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, all born in the meantime, live in a country that hasn’t guaranteed them the respect and rights they deserve?
In the intervening years, we’ve had a woman lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, comptroller and candidate for governor. More women serve in the legislature and hold offices throughout the state. Women are university presidents, deans, provosts and professors. Women are the majority of college students, including those in journalism departments. No one blinks an eye when a female doctor walks into the room.
Yet not everything is equal when it comes to pay, promotion and practice. Women’s salaries lag behind their male counterparts in many jobs, a not-so-hidden bias often arises against working mothers reaching the top, and the #metoo movement reminds us sexism is far from dead.
Last week’s debate was relatively low key, compared to the emotions and activities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As Illinois became a focal point for the amendment’s passage then, ERA supporters took to fasting, chaining themselves to the Capitol railing and even tossing animal blood on the marble floor. One activist was charged and convicted of trying to bribe a legislator for a yes vote.
Fear-mongers warned the amendment would lead to unisex bathrooms, women drafted into the military, abortion on demand and irreversible disruption in family life. Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum crew inundated the Statehouse, bearing homemade bread as a sign that men could no longer count on their wives to tend their needs if the ERA passed.
I remember having to physically remove myself from the UPI bureau when Schlafly popped in, knowing I could not objectively report on whatever she said. Many of the other women in the Statehouse pressroom also struggled to maintain an even balance in their reporting about the ERA, when pressure from both sides became intense. Our male colleagues, for the most part, struggled alongside us.
Last week opponents invoked some of the old arguments and emphasized abortion and fighting poverty as reasons to vote against the ERA. I wondered if they had even read the amendment’s language, just as I wondered the same 40 years ago. I respect deeply held beliefs on these issues, but I feared such arguments might condemn the ERA to another lengthy purgatory.
Fortunately, proponents prevailed and the House joined the Senate to make Illinois the 37th state to ratify. With another state needed to make the ERA part of the U.S. Constitution and the validity of its original passage deadline questioned, the forecast for the amendment is cloudy. I also am appalled and perplexed that my female state representative, a young working mother, was one of 45 to vote no.
But for now, I take comfort in Illinois at last joining the movement toward equal rights for all. It also is fun to reminisce with my former women colleagues about covering the story, even if most of us can’t believe it took this long to pass the amendment.
We are all mothers and many of us are grandmothers now, and only two are still working journalists. We share our memories and celebrate that today’s women reporters finally got to write the story we all longed to write, those 40 years ago.
Mary Bohlen worked as a Statehouse reporter for United Press International before joining the faculty at the University of Illinois Springfield. She retired from full-time teaching in 2011.