Lessons from Frederick Douglass for the ERA
As I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, the day before President Trump’s inauguration, I could not miss the fancy viewing tent with a picture of Frederick Douglass and a prominent quote “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” It occurred to me that women, heeding his wisdom, needed stop asking and start demanding for a solid legal structure for equality.
Two days later at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017 while handing out postcards which asked “Should Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment be a National Priority?” and chatting with people I was told that Frederick Douglas was no friend of women. I was curious.
We were all taught about Abigail Adams writing to her husband John in 1776 saying “Remember the Ladies” when you are writing your laws and “be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors”. John Adams wrote back and said “Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. We are not giving up our masculine ways”
Our Founding Fathers didn’t want men to be ruled by a king but non white men and all women were to remain subject to hierarchy. It was too radical for the democratic experiment to allow men “to be subject to the despotism of the Petticoat” or to reject slavery.
In 1848, thirteen years before the start of the Civil War, Elizabeth Caty Stanton proposed the “Declaration of Sentiments”. She modeled it on the Declaration of Independence opening with
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.”
The Civil War 1861 - 1865 divided the country. The women’s rights leaders fighting to abolish slavery had the goal of abolishing the enslavement of all women and all men. It was imperative that women be included in the amendments to the Constitution so that the democratic experiment would apply to them as well.
In the heated debates to give slaves freedom, the right to vote and legal equality, white men said that black men would not get these rights as long as women were included in the legal framework. It’s true that Frederick Douglass threw women under the bus and argued for XIV & XV Amendments to the Constitution to be ratified exclusively for men.
Unlike John Adams who argued that men would not use their power to unjustly suppress women Frederick Douglass continued to speak and write advocating for women’s rights. Women’s lives were precarious because women and their children were owned by their fathers and husbands, there was no legal protection from domestic violence, rape or forced labor and 1 in 8 women died in childbirth. Women had no rights to education, the banking systems, juries, drafting laws, leaving their houses or freedom of speech.
What has me rethinking Frederick Douglass are his writings on women’s rights. This “Women’s Rights Man” in his writings and speeches reflected sentiments that are still with us today and whose spirit I saw captured in signage at the Women’s March in DC. The signs carried by the marching women echoed his sentiments -
“We must hold women to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.”
“The rights of man and the rights of woman are one and inseparable, and stand upon the same indestructible basis.”
“We ask equal opportunity for free development, equal access to advantageous positions, equal wages for equal work, and equal rights for equal capacities.”
American women got arrested, went on hunger strikes, demanded and finally achieved the vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment but they have not achieved equal protection under the law because the 24 words of the Equal Rights Amendment (“ERA”) based on legal scholar Alice Paul’s work remains unratified -
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”
There is a patchwork of laws with the goal of giving women equality with men but the truth is that American women today are not equal under the Constitution and it has negatively impacted them from birth to death. (See the documentary “Equal Means Equal” for an overview of US women today without equal rights.)
Without a Constitutional legal framework the courts are comfortable using an intermediate standard for sexism which makes proving sexism more difficult than proving racism. Women remain legally inferior because judges have not been given a mandate to treat women equally, laws intending to remedy the imbalance are created but not adequately enforced or don’t have real economic repercussions and laws can be removed or changed based on political whim.
As Justice Scalia so famously said in his 2011 interview in California Lawyer Magazine “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t … If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws.”
During the eight years of the Obama administration ratification of the ERA was not front and center. I do imagine that some of the conflicts regarding the necessity of putting black men first felt by Frederick Douglass were also felt by President Obama.
The Women’s March in Washington DC was a sea of pink knitted hats with women holding thousands of signs that echoed the sentiments of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionists and women throughout all of history.
Again we sit at a crossroads. The last state to ratify the ERA was Indiana in 1977. On March 22nd Nevada which has 40% women legislators has just become the 36th State to ratify the ERA.
We now need 2 more of the 14 unratified States to have their State legislators vote to ratify. Even though we only need 2 additional States I think that the people in all of the unratified States should be demanding that their legislators stand up for the fundamental equality of all people and vote for ratification
Unratified States - Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia
In addition to the two State Strategy we need the Congress and Senate to vote to remove the unfair 1982 deadline (H. J. Res 53 & S.J. Res 5) so we can begin our democratic experiment for all women and men. We need every American to call their legislators on the Hill. (Go to ERAAction.org for an overview and updates on legislation)
In light of the wisdom of Frederick Douglass “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” We, the people need to stand up and demand that the ERA be ratified immediately so that there is a legal framework for US women’s equality. Only then can the United States see with both eyes, hear with both ears and think with both sides of our collective American intelligence.