ERA Coalition President Jessica Neuwirth

The life-long human rights advocate discusses her latest book, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.

One of the founders and current President of Equality Now and the President of the ERA Coalition, Jessica Neuwirth has been at the forefront of human rights issues for over two decades. She has previously held several positions at Amnesty International, including Policy Advisor for Amnesty International USA and Tour Producer for Human Rights Now! She was a recently a consultant at the United Nations to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on issues of sexual violence. Ms. Neuwirth received a Bachelor of Arts in History from Yale, and earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. In her latest text, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now, she aims, in her words, "to help women and men get fired up enough about the absence of this fundamental human right to put it into the Constitution once and for all."


Tavis Smiley: With a foreword by Gloria Steinem, “Equal Means Equal” is the new text from Jessica Neuwirth. The book details why now is the best time for an equal rights amendment. Neuwirth is the founder of the new ERA Coalition. Jessica, good to have you on this program.

Jessica Neuwirth: Nice to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: I want to jump right in. Why is now the best time for this amendment?

Neuwirth: Well, the amendment–it’s not only the best time. It’s the only time. I mean, we’re behind. I think we’re behind the rest of the world. Almost everyone else has this type of equal rights provision in their Constitution. So, if anything, we’re past time.

It seems like the right time because enough time has passed since the last campaign in the 70s that virtually all of the arguments that were raised against the equal rights amendment then are gone, arguments that don’t even make sense anymore.

I don’t know what some of those arguments were to begin with. Fear of unisex bathrooms, I think those types of things, cultures move forward and evolved in many ways, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have this important right in our Constitution.

Tavis: So why do you think, then, that we’re lagging behind the rest of the world?

Neuwirth: I think after the last campaign, the issue fell off the agenda. In fact, more than 70% of Americans think we already have the equal rights amendment in the Constitution. So I think it’s just an information gap. Most people, when they find out we don’t have it, are very, very outraged and interested to know how we can get it. So my sense is this should be really a no-brainer.

Tavis: What’s the most embarrassing for you in terms of other countries by name who have done better on this issue than we have? I’m just trying to put some shock value to this if I can.

Neuwirth: You know, I’ve spent most of my career working on the International Women’s Rights movement and I’ve watched the U.S. government urge other countries to put this exact language in their Constitutions, countries like Afghanistan. And there’s a U.N. treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

That’s really known as the International Bill of Rights for Women. And the U.S. is one of only seven countries that has not ratified that treaty. And the other countries are Iran and Somalia and Sudan and South Sudan and two small Pacific Island countries that most people haven’t heard of called Palau and Tonga. So that’s the company we’re in.

Every single other country in the world has accepted as a framework legally for the rights of women, this treaty, CEDAW. So when you look at it from an international perspective, we don’t have CEDAW which is the international legal framework. We don’t have our own domestic equal rights provision in the Constitution.

And yet, we’re out there promoting the rule of law and we don’t have an effective legal framework for the protection of women’s rights. So it’s very hard for the U.S., I think, to be out there as a global leader on women’s rights without those tools.

Tavis: What has been our justification for not signing onto this?

Neuwirth: Well, I think there’s a fear of international law that has prevented us from signing onto so many basic treaties of human rights, the Disabilities Convention, Child–there’s so many conventions that the U.S. has been reluctant to sign onto because it’s a little bit of a xenophobic history. But that doesn’t explain why we shouldn’t have an equal rights amendment in our own Constitution.

In fact, when we were lobbying over the years for CEDAW to be ratified, it has to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, it was signed by President Carter in the 70s when it was first passed by the U.N., but it takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify it.

So we’ve been working for that for many, many years. And people often said because one of the first provisions in CEDAW is that you should have a constitutional provision on equality in your domestic constitution.

CEDAW is really a back door to the ERA and my feeling is, well, let’s go through the front door then. You know, if we don’t want to have CEDAW, at least we should have a domestic provision, but really we should have both.

Tavis: I want to walk–in the time I have here, I want to walk through some of the specifics here and get you to just give me a top line for each of these and what these issues represent and whether or not we’re making progress in any of these areas. The first area will be the issue of pay equity, or pay inequity, as it were at the moment, yeah.

Neuwirth: Inequity. It’s inequity more than equity. Progress? Yes, we’ve gone from 59 cents on the dollar to 79 cents on the dollar or 78 cents on the dollar. So I guess, in a way, that’s progress. Certainly for African American women and Latino women, it’s less.

But I think that we all feel women should make a dollar on every dollar a man makes and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be there. There are some legal obstacles. Not having the ERA has really hurt women in getting more towards equality.

For example, employers are allowed to take under the law into consideration when they’re setting salaries for the exact same job with the exact same responsibilities, what was the prior salary. So if women make less than the first job because they’re women, that carries over for the rest of their career.

And on average, what we find is that a high school graduate who’s a woman over the course of her lifetime will make on average $700,000 less than a man. That goes up for graduate students, lawyers and doctors, to $2 million over the course of their careers. So there may be some progress, but it’s certainly not enough.

Tavis: Much was made of–much heralded was the first executive order the president signed, Obama, when he got elected, Lilly Ledbetter. What impact has or will that have on the coming months and years?

Neuwirth: Well, Lilly Ledbetter was an important congressional act to overturn a Supreme Court decision. But what the decision really held was that Lilly Ledbetter had been discriminated against for years and, when she finally won her case, the decision was to give her only six months of damages because of the statute of limitation.

So what the Lilly Ledbetter Act does is to just basically extend the statute of limitations so that it resets with every paycheck. But the bigger problem in a way is you still have to win your case. Her case was really about damages and the law corrects what the Supreme Court did to try to limit her damages over the course of her career.

But it’s not nearly enough because it is so hard for women to win their cases. Again and again, their cases get thrown out of court because they cannot prove in a way that’s sufficient for the Supreme Court standard, which is an unrealistic standard of review, that they’ve been discriminated against.

And the Constitution, and in particular, the 14th Amendment, really doesn’t even cover the private sector. It’s limited to state action. Whereas, we all know, I think, the most discrimination in the workplace is in the private sector.

Tavis: We talked about pay inequity. The second issue that you talk about in detail in this text is pregnancy discrimination.

Neuwirth: Pregnancy discrimination is another area where the Supreme Court has really undermined women’s rights to equality in the workplace. The current Supreme Court jurisprudence is the pregnancy discrimination does not constitute sex discrimination.

And, again, in the 70s, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which is currently under review again at the Supreme Court to try to remedy that decision because it just doesn’t make sense.

And I think even the dissent at the time said that it just doesn’t make sense to say that pregnancy discrimination is not a form of sex discrimination. But the logic is that, well, men can’t get pregnant, so there can’t be discrimination.

And what that tells you is they’re looking at a workplace that is not designed for women and that in itself is inherently discriminatory. And until we fix that, we’ll never get pay equity and we really will never get economic equality for women.

Tavis: The third issue is violence against women, which has been far too much in the news of late.

Neuwirth: I think in the last campaign, violence against women was not so much of an issue for the ERA because maybe it wasn’t recognized as much as it is now as an equality issue.

But gender-based violence has been recognized as an issue for women’s equality and yet it hasn’t been an issue that the Supreme Court and the courts have been willing to address at the federal level.

So in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed and it did include a right of action, a private right of action, so that individuals who were unable to get justice could go to the federal court system. And a number of cases over the years have basically eliminated that possibility.

The first case, right after the act was passed, was a campus sexual assault case, the Christy Brzonkala case where Christy Brzonkala was raped in her first month of college. She sued the college for not addressing what happened to her and she sued the two varsity football players.

Her case went all the way up to the Supreme Court and they threw out that part of the law. They didn’t say there wasn’t gender-based violence in her case. They just said there was no constitutional basis for her to bring her case and they struck down that part of the law. So that’s one of many clear reasons why we need the ERA.

And then subsequently there was a really very, very troubling case from Castle Rock, Colorado, a woman called Jessica Gonzales who had a court order of protection from her husband whom she was divorcing and who was very violent.

And he came and picked up her three daughters and, over the course of the next 9 or 10 hours, she called the police almost a dozen times just begging them to come and do something and arrest him.

They had a legal obligation under the state law to do a mandatory arrest, but they didn’t. And when he finally showed up at the police station, in fact, with the three girls dead in the cab of his truck, each shot in the head at the age of 10, 7, and 8 years old, Jessica Gonzales lost her whole family.

She sued the police and the city and her case also went up to the Supreme Court and was thrown out because they said there was just no constitutional basis for her lawsuit. So I think with violence against women, we’re really losing lives as a result of women’s inability to get justice.

Tavis: There is, of course, both de jure and de facto discrimination against women in this country. You have a whole section in the book that I found fascinating about the numbers and the kinds of discriminatory laws that are on the books against women.

It’s one thing for us to work to include women and to be more fair toward women or with women. But it’s another thing, though, to have laws on the books that are in fact discriminatory against women.

Neuwirth: Well, I think a number of discriminatory laws that were explicit over the course of our history have been eliminated. But there still are some laws that explicitly discriminate on the basis of sex and it’s not always necessarily against women.

One of the laws that was adjudicated by the Supreme Court had to do with a citizenship law where, if you’re born overseas to unwed parents, your right to become an American citizenship is different, depending on whether it’s your mother or your father who’s the American citizen.

And in that case, the law was upheld not too long ago with all the women Supreme Court justices dissenting and pointing out that there was a different standard that seemed to be based on a different understanding of what parenting meant for men and for women because that law seems to have been designed to allow men, particularly in the military, to go overseas without taking responsibility for parenting children overseas.

And in the case that was before the Supreme Court, it was really the opposite. It was a father who had raised his son who had come over from Vietnam at the age of six, but he had not been married to the mother and he had never registered his son which you’re required to do.

So even though he accepted paternity and he raised the boy himself, in the end, his son was subject to deportation which he wouldn’t have been if it was his mother instead of his father who had been a U.S. citizen.

Tavis: Since there’s so much talk about this, not that one person can deliver this kind of victory, but would the election of Hillary Clinton as president make a difference in this issue? Might it take that? And if she were elected, would it help or would it hurt the cause? I don’t know. You tell me.

Neuwirth: Well, I think if you step back and look at it in global context, I mean, there are so many countries around the world that have had women leaders. And the idea that it’s such a radical thing for us to have a woman president is a throwback to another time.

I think Hillary Clinton would obviously support the Equal Rights Amendment and I think a campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment wouldn’t hurt her or anyone else for that matter. I think everyone should support this campaign and I think we should have a much better ratio of men to women at the highest levels of political leadership.

I mean, even Congress, which has more women than it ever had before, is way behind many other legislative bodies in the rest of the world. You look at a country like Rwanda or Sweden, you’ve got more than 50% or close to 50%. I think that’s where we want to be.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that–I was just reading an article about this the other day–that because there’s so much talk about Hillary Clinton, one could get the false impression that we’re making progress in terms of the numbers of women in national elective office when, in fact, we’re not. We’re not gaining ground with women, particularly in the Senate, for example, you referenced a moment ago.

What’s your sense of what caused the pumping of the brakes when some years ago we had this signal year where people were referring to it as the year of the woman, and since then, we’ve actually lost ground for women in certain elective offices?

Neuwirth: I mean, I think it’s a hard battle. You see what women go through in campaigns and I think that women have proven again and again that they’re very effective leaders, and they can certainly hold their own. So it’s a good question.

Why in a country that promotes itself as a leader on women’s rights is it so difficult to have equality for women not only in a political context, but in leadership in all other aspects of society as well?

I think, again, that we need to just catch up with the rest of the world. And a lot of it is a cultural prejudice and that’s another reason we need the ERA because it’s a statement of principle.

Tavis: What do you mean by cultural prejudice?

Neuwirth: It’s just raw sexism, really. The idea that people have and why aren’t women getting elected? It’s not that there aren’t qualified women. In my view, the reason is there’s a discrimination and that’s the thing about discrimination that’s, I think, true for race as well as sex discrimination.

It can be subtle, you know, It’s not always explicit, but you see it and you know it. And I think we’ve seen it in the media with women. We’ve seen it in political campaigns in particular where things are said.

There’s just a little window into the subtleties of the cultural discrimination. And what an ERA does is say at the highest level of public policy, the Constitution, a formal expression of what we stand for, women and men are equal, and that has an impact in itself.

Again, it’s interesting that most other countries have that and, in other countries, it does seem to be less difficult to get women into the highest levels of political leadership. So I think we have to really see, you know, if there is any opposition to the ERA, what exactly is it? Why?

I think having an ERA will not only help us with the legal framework that women need to protect and promote their rights to equality, but also with the cultural shifts. And I think there has been progress. I think we just need more and we need it sooner.

Tavis: If and when this thing comes up again on the docket for a vote and there are persons, male persons, who might vote against this, whether or not there is a way and whether or not women are prepared at this point to make those persons who stand against this pay for that at the polls, is there enough energies, enough solidarity amongst women around this issue to make those persons who come out against it pay for it?

Neuwirth: Oh, absolutely. I believe so. I think–I’ve started a new ERA coalition last year and that is one of the things that we’re asking people to do is take a pledge that they will only support candidates who support the Equal Rights Amendment.

Tavis: Why not ask the candidates to do that when they run?

Neuwirth: That too, absolutely, absolutely. I think that we have to use that political pressure. But, again, it shouldn’t be so difficult and I think we’re talking about a statement of principle at the highest level.

So my hope would be that really once we get this onto the agenda which we’re hoping to do–and the reason I wrote the book is really to just explain why we need it. Because what happens is, people think we have it, then they find out we don’t have it and they want to know why do we need it. So…

Tavis: Why do you think people think? You mentioned earlier in this conversation, 70% of people think we already have an Equal Rights Amendment. Why do you think Americans think that we have something that we really don’t have?

Neuwirth: I think a lot of it is a misunderstanding of the 14th Amendment. I think that people think of the 14th Amendment as guaranteeing that type of equality. But as Justice Antonin Scalia has said, certainly the Constitution doesn’t require discrimination against women. The issue is whether it prohibits discrimination against women. It doesn’t.

So he said very clearly it doesn’t and I think what the book tries to do in all of these different areas is to explain why and how the Constitution does allow certain forms of discrimination to take place without legal recourse.

So I think once people understand that, then it makes it more clear why we need it. And so I think that it’s really an information gap that we’re trying to close more than any kind of political opposition.

Tavis: And finally, since you said information gap, I wonder whether or not this issue represents whether or not there is relative to this issue a generational gap. I want to close where I began by acknowledging the foreword to this book by Gloria Steinem.

I love Gloria Steinem. Love the work she’s done and what she stands for. So it raises the question for me whether or not there is on this issue in 2015 a generational divide even amongst women.

Neuwirth: Well, I think there was always a lot of exaggeration in terms of women opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. I think that was really–and Gloria says it in the introduction, to mask other economic interests that maybe the insurance industry and others had.

And I think there’s a much greater recognition now actually that in terms of economic equality, that is actually not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Because empowering women economically benefits communities as a whole and families as well as women themselves.

But I think what I find among younger people is, again, a lot of people never heard of the ERA. They don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of support for it. And there are a lot more men who support it, and young men in particular.

I just haven’t heard the opposition. You know, we don’t have people like Bobby Riggs running around anymore. So I do think that men are going to be as much a part of this campaign as women.

Tavis: Just for record, Bobby Riggs did get beat pretty badly by Billie Jean King [laugh].

Neuwirth: Yes, he did.

Tavis: I digress on that point. The new book from Jessica Neuwirth with a foreword by Gloria Steinem is called “Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment is Now”. Jessica, good to have you on this program.

Neuwirth: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

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Last modified: February 3, 2015 at 7:24 pm