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  1. Florida

Women still don’t have equal rights in the Constitution. Florida could change that. It won’t.

Florida is one of the last states needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times Audrey Didomenico, 8 poses for a portrait at Demens Landing Park before the Women's Solidarity March St. Pete in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday, January 21, 2017. St. Petersburg Police said 20,000 participated in the event, which made this sister event to the Women's March on Washington the largest demonstration ever held in St. Petersburg. "I'm here because I believe everybody should be equal no matter who they are or what they are."
Published Jul. 3
Updated Jul. 17

One hundred years ago last month, the U.S. Senate passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

Four years later, in 1923, New Jersey suffragist Alice Paul brought her “Lucretia Mott” Amendment, or Equal Rights Amendment, to Congress, which aimed to constitutionally guarantee equal rights to women in 24 simple words.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” the amendment reads.

And 96 years later, women are still waiting.

Florida had the power to help change that this legislative session.

It didn’t.

“It is a shame,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said. “But women have a history of fighting to overcome obstacles in this country and throughout the world. That’s what we’re going to continue to do."

Julie Roidt Olson (l), Alice Brown and her daughter Mary Hahn attended the International Women's Day rally at Williams Park in St. Petersburg on March 8, 2017, while visiting from Wisconsin. [DIVYA KUMAR |Times]

The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was passed at the federal level in 1972, after decades of advocacy. In order to be added to the constitution however, two-thirds of the states, 38, need to ratify it.

Within five years, 35 states had ratified the amendment.

Betty Castor, then a state senator and early supporter of ratification, said it seemed like Florida would ratify in 1977. A bill passed in the House and it received bipartisan support in the Senate up until former Senate President Dempsey Barron swayed some legislators and it failed, Castor said.

The ERA fell out of public view in the early 1980s, but it’s advocates have continued the fight.

“I’m still forging on this and people are dying around me,” Sandy Oestreich, 84, a retired nurse practitioner and founder of the National Equal Rights Amendment Alliance, said. “I have to keep raising that banner everywhere.”

Beginning in he early 2000s, former Democratic Florida state representative and senator Arthenia Joyner took up the fight, introducing a ratification bill nearly every year until she left office in 2016. Since then others, including Cruz, have taken up the fight.

Recently, however, the stakes have been raised.

Nevada and Illinois passed ratification bills in 2017 and 2018 respectively, making Florida one of the few remaining hold-out states. If just one more approves, the ERA could be ratified and added to the Constitution.

The ERA even made it’s way into the recent Democratic presidential debates and HBO host John Oliver devoted an episode of his Last Week Tonight show to discussing the amendment.

Cruz said it’s apathy, not partisanship, that keeps ERA bills stalled. In Illinois, former state Rep. Steve Andersson, a Republican, was a champion of the ERA and continues to advocate for it in other states. In Florida, too, Joyner said, there had been bipartisan interest.

“There are certainly those who think it is unnecessary, which pushes it down the list of priorities,” Cruz said. “But standing up for women’s equality should always be a priority.”

The bill to ratify the ERA in Florida has, however, received some Republican opposition.

At a May meeting of Tampa Tiger Bay, Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts Pat Frank challenged Rep. James Grant over his opposition to an Equal Rights Amendment.

Grant, a Tampa Republican, wouldn’t support the constitutional amendment.

“It has nothing to do with men’s versus women,” Grant said. “The reason I don’t support it is because it has a significant economic impact in the face of studies that show we don’t often times have wage disparity.”

Castor, who still supports ratification and was heartbroken when the bill failed in 1977, said issues of sexual violence and the pay gap still need a resolution, despite many advancement’s in women’s rights.

Some advocates fear younger generations don’t have as much interest in the ERA anymore. But legislators like Cruz refuse to give up. She plans to co-sponsor the bill again in the next session.

Some make the argument that the 14th Amendment offers enough protection, Cruz said. However, she thinks the significance of having it written into the Constitution that men and women are equal cannot be overestimated.

And, Cruz said, the need for explicitly stated equal rights protections based on gender and sexual identity are needed now more than ever.

“Society is slowly but surely opening its eyes to people of different sexual orientations and gender identities,” she said. “The ERA will become an important safeguard for protecting these groups as well.”

Times Political Editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

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