Futility, with side of possibility

Posted: April 3, 2013 at 5 a.m.

Once, the Equal Rights Amendment’s profound simplicity had momentum.

All it says, you know, is that persons may not be victims of discrimination according to gender.

Richard Nixon endorsed it. Gerald Ford, too. Thirty-five of the requisite 38 states ratified it by 1977, four years after Congress referred it.

Then the country went all right-wing and paranoid. Along came the emergence of church-lady madness. People said we were going to have unisex bathrooms and that women couldn’t inherit their husbands’ money.

It all coalesced in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and the cynically expedient merging of narrow-minded religion, supply-side economics and tax-cut politics.

Now the country moves away from that apocalyptic and theocratic nonsense. It does so just in time for Arkansas, always out of national sync, to embrace it wholesale.

So Arkansas, one of the 15 nonratifiers, is the last place you’d try to revive the ERA in 2013. So that is precisely what state Sen. Joyce Elliott, the last liberal in Arkansas politics, did Tuesday.

Her point: It’s my duty, my treasured and proud opportunity, to try.

Futile? A word about that word, if I might: Beleaguered and outraged women who normally appreciate my point of view were distressed when I described their Saturday rally at the Capitol two weeks ago as futile.

My points—that weekend gatherings at the Capitol are meaningless and that relying on the ACLU and litigation to sue over anti-abortion bills is to embrace political weakness rather than pursue renewed political strength—were not altogether well-received.

I heard from many women who said they would show weekday political strength inside the Capitol on the day of ERA hearing.

And they did, about 125 to 150 strong, filling the room with standing room only.

“This enough for you?” a woman wearing a “trust women” button asked me.

Yes, it all was futile to the extent that this Legislature is not going to ratify the ERA. But these fundamentalist preachers and coffee-shop blowhards now making our laws need to see that there is actual political resistance to their nonsense.

They need to see women who aren’t subservient. They need to see that there are determined women standing between them and the door of the committee room in which they vote for the latest anti-woman outrage.

A trip back to the ’70s to argue about the ERA is as good an occasion as any for nonsubservient women to show smug and clueless right-wingers some nonsubservience.

So we did our time-travel Tuesday morning in the Old Supreme Court chamber before the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

And in allegiance to gender nondiscrimination, I must submit that the most remarkable testimony came from … well, that’d be men.

I refer to Larry DeLashmit, former military sergeant, on the positive side and to Jerry Cox, the spokesman of the gay-bigoted, abortion-choice-opposing Arkansas Family Council on the negative side.

DeLashmit had me about ready to run through a wall to cram into the U.S. Constitution an amendment for the unambiguous guarantee of equal rights for women who serve in combat and bleed and lose limbs, and in memory of women who have died in combat serving this country.

Cox, on the other hand, had me amused by the stale predictability of his alarmist opposition. Why, he said, some coed somewhere in some college might sue to be allowed to shower in the dorm with the boys and the courts would be powerless under this amendment to say no.

Actually, there are plenty of long-established coeducational dormitories already.

And forgive me for a little gender distinction, even stereotype. But I suspect any lawsuit on a dorm-segregated campus would come from a college male seeking the right to take a shower with college females.

That ERA would work both ways. That’s how equality is.

I am fairly confident that the courts would rule that the operative right is equal access to public facilities, including a shower, but not necessarily a coeducational one, and that the authority of a college or any other public facility to assign bathroom usage by separated gender does not abridge the right of any person to have an equal opportunity to relieve or bathe oneself.

Under this absurdly feared ERA, the University of Arkansas could still have a women’s basketball team without Marshawn Powell having the right to play for it. And Bret Bielema could put a men’s football team on the field this fall without having females as 11 of his 22 starters.

What the UA can’t have—by a constitutional amendment transcending mere statutory laws like Title IX—is unequal opportunity to basketball and football participation, or to anything, according to gender.

We’re not legislating away differences between males and females. Good luck with that. We’re legislating away discrimination between them.

These things aren’t hard. Scare tactics seldom are when you stop to think about them.

In the end, of course, the ERA died in committee with majority Republicans voting no.

But its spirit lived for a couple of hours inside a government room once used for justice.

And that was a good thing—not futile, but an incremental triumph.

John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.