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Leigh Haber: Hi, Gloria, and thank you for speaking with us. I wanted specifically to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment. Women’s rights are under attack. Why is finally getting the ERA on the books crucially important?
Gloria Steinem: First of all, on the global level, I would point out that we are the only democracy in the world that does not have women in its Constitution, which is a travesty in itself. Then, on the more individual level, there are many situations in which the ERA’s absence is felt, whether with regard to property or privacy rights, or others.
The ERA wouldn’t only protect women’s rights, though, right?
The ERA forbids discrimination based on sex or gender. So a man might be discriminated against in a custody case or in some kind of employment situation based on nothing but gender and it would protect him, too. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always good about pointing that out in her support of the ERA.
Why do you think it’s been so difficult to get the ERA over the finish line? In the 1950s, it came close to passing. It’s been ratified by enough states and yet it’s still not the law of the land.
One problem is that many who would support it think we already have it. So it's not perceived as the emergency or need that it truly is, especially now after the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade. And reasons for support or opposition also vary from state to state. For example, in some states there was opposition because the insurance industry there had a profit motive in defeating the ERA since actuarial tables are still sex segregated. It could make a huge difference to them financially—a negative one—to pass it, so they put money behind opposing it. Even when you look at someone like Phyllis Schlafly, who said she was against it for religious reasons—she was basically a front for the insurance lobby. As I've said before, public opinion polls had always proved that a big majority of American women support the ERA, yet state legislators also knew it was opposed by the insurance industry, chambers of commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other corporate lobbyists. Health insurance interests alone stood to lose billions if the ERA forced it to stop charging women more for less coverage, and since that industry was largely state-regulated, it had lobbyists in every state capital. Phyllis Schlafly and her antifeminist homemakers had been brought in to cover for legislators who were voting against the ERA anyway.
What role could the ERA have in helping to curb the assault on women’s reproductive freedom, with Roe having fallen?
If democracy means anything, it means decision-making power over our own bodies—and that means equal decision-making power. Can men be forbidden to have a vasectomy? So why are women uniquely governed—in terms our physical selves—by various state laws? Well, the answer is because we have a womb. We happen to have the one thing guys don’t. And when you look back in history at authoritarian movements around the world, you learn that often the first thing they have done is to outlaw abortion and declare family planning a crime against the state.
The Third Reich is one example of that, correct?
Hitler was elected, which in and of itself we sometimes forget. And the very next day he padlocked all the family planning clinics and declared abortion a crime against the state because obviously he was after creating an Aryan race. Whatever people's motives are for wanting to restrict or eliminate the right to choose, the control of reproduction is the first step in authoritarian and religious authoritarian movements.
Was the Catholic Church always opposed to abortion?
Actually, the Vatican didn’t outlaw abortion until the late 1860s. Prior to that, in fact, they regulated it. They said a male fetus could be aborted up to so many weeks and a female fetus up to so many weeks more. Their (incorrect) reasoning I believe was that since men were superior, a male fetus grew to viability more quickly.
So why did the Catholic Church stop allowing abortion?
Again, they were not only allowing abortion, they were regulating abortion. But my understanding is that changed when Napoleon III began decimating the French population with wars. To restore population growth, he made a deal with Pope Pius IX that if the Pope would outlaw abortion, then Napoleon III, an emperor, would throw his support behind the doctrine of papal infallibility, which the Pope desperately wanted.
In other words, more bargaining over women’s reproductive rights, even way back then.
What would the ERA do to boost women’s reproductive rights?
It would strengthen rights around our own bodies. The issue of fetal rights would not arise until a fetus could survive outside of women’s bodies. Right now fetal rights do apply, even though the fetus is 100 percent dependent on women’s hearts and lungs and circulation and so on. But it would not come into play until the fetus was at the point of viability. I mean, in a way that’s the kind of popular, sensible understanding already, even though there are differences on the idea of when viability arrives.
Why did the founding fathers leave women out of the Constitution?
Women, as well as slaves and Indians. Yes, it appears we need to face the fact they were only concerned about white guys. The way to see it is that they intended to create a white patriarchy. Depriving rights to women and to people of color—these are linked, and we can’t forget that.
Why is it urgent, in our current climate, that we pass the ERA?
Well, for one thing, it’s a shame that we don’t have it. I really do think that we should put up a huge, huge poster in all the airports where international travelers arrive that says, “Welcome to the only democracy in the world that excludes female human beings.” It’s absurd.
What do you think its chances are of passing the Senate now?
Many legal experts think it doesn’t even need to pass the Senate. They say the National Archivist can simply enact it, but so far he hasn’t done that. But one way or the other, we’ve got to get it done!
Thanks, Gloria, for all you continue to do!
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