In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was intended to end all discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 responded to and took place during the time of the Civil Rights movement. Although it applies to other forms of discrimination, it was mainly intended to address voting inequality and racial segregation. Looking back at the measure today, it was clearly successful in ending segregation, but did it really end discrimination? Here we are fifty years later and all types of discrimination, racial and otherwise, are prominent. Many forms of oppression have become more subtle and normalized but discrimination is still fairly easy to spot when it comes to unequal wages: according to the US Census Bureau, women only make 77 cents to a man’s dollar when working the same position.
The issue of unequal pay in America dates back quite a while, far enough so that Alice Paul wrote the first copy of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and presented it to Congress in 1923. The ERA is a Constitutional amendment which proposes an end to discrimination on the basis of sex. Since 1923, the ERA has been re-introduced to Congress numerous times (most recently on March 27, 2014 in the House of Representatives), yet it is currently only in place in twenty-one states; the United States federal government has never ratified it.
With such a pressing issue as unequal wages, it is understandable why the ERA is re-introduced to Congress quite often, and it is interesting how the measure never receives enough votes. But what if the ERA did pass in the Senate and the House? Would the amendment actually fulfill its purpose of ending discrimination on the basis of sex?
It probably would not. First of all, take a look at similar measures Congress passed in the past such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act was intended not only to end discrimination, and more specifically segregation, but it was also intended to change the mindset of the American public, and like the Civil Rights Act, that is where the ERA would fail. Both the ERA and the Civil Rights Act are pieces of legislation and nothing more; they are laws created by the federal government, completely incapable of directly affecting the ideology of the masses. In other words, a piece of legislation does not mean the entire nation will suddenly adapt its behavior in accordance with whatever is passed. If the masses do not agree with the law, they will not respect or follow it, thereby defeating the purpose of the ERA. The ERA prevents discrimination based on sex, but if a person disagrees with that concept, he or she will not hesitate in discriminating. An even better example of this is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which Congress passed in late 2013. The ENDA states that employers may not discriminate against gays, lesbians or transgender peoples, yet the Arizona legislature still proposed a bill in early 2014 in direct contrast with the ENDA.
Furthermore, legislation like the ERA would be unsuccessful because it does not propose any tangible means of enforcing an end to gender inequality. Discrimination based on sex could be present in many different spheres of life and it would be extremely difficult-if not impossible-to police every aspect of society. Would the government place some type of enforcement on every street corner and in every workplace or classroom? Enforcement seems illogical. Even if the government somehow managed to enforce the ERA in every aspect of society, such enforcement would most likely bleed into each individual’s First Amendment rights. Attempting to force each individual to think and behave a certain way could easily cross the line between protecting the marginalized and tyrannically and dogmatically forcing individuals to cede their freedoms.
Fortunately, the Obama administration seems to have conjured a solution to this long-protruding problem. According to the White House press release on April 8, the President is in the process of signing an Executive Order which will prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employees who choose to discuss or question their pay. President Obama is also signing a Presidential Memorandum which will require federal contractors to submit a summary of their employees’ pay, including specific data by sex and race, to the Department of Labor. While it may not initiate a mindset shift that would completely obliterate discrimination, Obama’s recent executive decisions could very well provide the effective enforcement that the ERA does not guarantee.
By CHRISTINE SMET