Rosie Couture, 16, is a self-proclaimed policy nerd: “I really love legislation,” she says, so much so that she browses bills in the Virginia General Assembly as a hobby. That’s how she first learned about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) back in 2019. She had never heard of the proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution, which would guarantee equal rights under the law for all American citizens regardless of sex. “I was like, ‘Wait, holy cow, how is this not a thing yet, and why is nobody else talking about it?’” Couture recalls thinking. One year later, she’s leading a teen movement fighting to get Congress to adopt the ERA, continuing a legacy of activism to add gender equality to the U.S. Constitution.
As of 2020, Couture is the executive director of Generation Ratify, a 3,000 member strong youth-led movement to ratify the ERA through initiatives like lobbying, canvassing, and phone-banking. “We were missing those young voices that were there to push the conversation,” Couture explains. She says young people place a greater emphasis on intersectionality in their social justice activism, and Generation Ratify works to elevate women of color and people beyond the gender binary in their advocacy. “It really sucks when we see people who are older, specifically older white women, who are just talking about centering themselves in the narrative and just not making the effort to have an inclusive conversation,” she says.
The 19th Amendment focuses mainly on a certain aspect of women’s rights.
As Americans celebrate the Aug. 18 centennial of the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment and reflect on the past, Generation Ratify is looking to a future with broader standards of equality. The 19th Amendment affirmed the right to vote for white women in the United States, but initially left out African American, Native American, Latina, and Asian American women. Today, transgender people whose IDs don’t match their gender still face obstacles to voting due to strict voter ID laws. The ERA would explicitly guarantee equality for people of all marginalized genders in the Constitution, including those who are transgender and/or beyond the gender binary: The amendment’s wording uses “sex” rather than “men and women,” thus extending its protections to all.
For the activists at Generation Ratify, the best way to honor the 19th Amendment’s centennial is to continue gender equality advocacy and support the ERA. “The 19th Amendment focuses mainly on a certain aspect of women’s rights, but the Equal Rights Amendment will serve as more of an umbrella and a comprehensive solution overall,” Generation Ratify Co-Organizing Director Ritwik Tati, 16, explains.
While an AP-NORC poll from January 2020 found 73% of Americans are in favor of ratifying the ERA, it also found 72% of Americans believe women and men already have explicit equal rights in the Constitution. This is not true — as of 2020, the Constitution only guarantees equal voting rights, not explicit equal rights in every capacity. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, suffragette Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party identified over 300 U.S. laws that still discriminated on the basis of sex. To address these laws, Paul drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which now declares: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
As a generation, we really have the most stake in this.
The impact of such an amendment would be broad. Having gender equality codified in the Constitution would provide legal leverage against long-standing problems like the gender wage gap, anti-LGBTQ+ laws, reproductive injustice, and more. Many of these issues also disproportionately impact women of color, who have historically supported the ERA. “Because of the duality of our identity, the ERA will have a larger impact on African American women,” Generation Ratify California State Lead Camille Lowery, 16, explains. “Gender inequality and racial inequality are so interconnected, more than some people think.” Adopting the ERA would also bolster legal protections for existing women’s rights legislation under attack, such as the Violence Against Women Act, which strengthens responses to domestic violence and sexual assault but expired in 2019, and has not been renewed. Ratifying the ERA would even improve America’s global status on gender — worldwide, only 27 other nations don’t have constitutional guarantees for gender equality.
For Generation Ratify Southeast Regional Director Emily Yi, 16, ratifying the ERA means bolstering Title IX protections against sex discrimination in schools and school activities, and the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act against sex discrimination in the payment of wages — two pieces of legislation that would ensure equal rights in education and the workforce for the teens starting to plan their adult lives. Yi emphasizes Gen Z’s unique role in the pro-ERA movement: “As a generation, we really have the most stake in this,” she explains. “Equality and justice for all is not guaranteed under the Constitution, so when I stand up and pledge allegiance to say that, I would like to believe it.” In February, Yi lobbied at ERA opponent Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) office in Greenville, South Carolina, to send a clear message: “If you aren’t going to stand up for our rights, then we will get you out of office and vote for somebody who will.”
While the ERA was first proposed in 1923, it wasn’t passed by Congress until 1972, where its success was largely due to the advocacy of pro-ERA representatives Shirley Chisholm and Martha Griffiths. However, Congress set a time limit to ratify, or approve, the amendment. By the 1982 deadline, only 35 out of the necessary 38 states had ratified the legislation, leaving the ERA dead in the water.
This was our way of getting our voices heard in this court.
But the fight for ratification has reemerged in recent years. In 2017, Nevada ratified the ERA, followed by Illinois in 2018. On Jan. 15, 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA — fulfilling the requirement that three-quarters of states ratify an amendment for it to be adopted into law. However, due to the expired 1982 deadline, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration announced in January 2020 that “the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the States.”
In response, in January 2020, Generation Ratify filed an amicus brief in the court case Virginia, et al v. Ferriero, demanding the archivist of the United States establish and recognize the ERA as the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the basis of the ratification. “This was our way of getting our voices heard in this court,” Couture says. Generation Ratify was also one of the only filers to use completely gender-neutral language in their brief, pushing the conversation to be more inclusive of people beyond the gender binary. “They are a group that is so important to include in this conversation,” Yi says.
In the meantime, Generation Ratify’s advocacy continues. On July 22, 2020, the organization’s first birthday, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the group organized a virtual youth lobby day over Zoom with roughly 40 meetings with congressional offices. Youth activists with Generation Ratify voiced their continued support for Senate Joint Resolution 6, a piece of legislation to remove the deadline for ERA ratification. Additionally, the group voiced their support for Sen. Kamala Harris’ Maternal CARE Act against racial bias in maternal health care, the Menstrual Equity for All Act increasing the availability of menstrual hygiene products, and the preservation of Title IX protections against sex discrimination in schools. “This is such a great way to let young people’s voices be heard in Congress, [which usually seems] so inaccessible for young people,” Couture said.
While those who oppose the ERA declare the amendment dead, teenagers at Generation Ratify vow to not let that happen. “Generation Ratify is carrying on its legacy, especially in our generation,” Couture says regarding the ERA. “We need the ERA if we’re even going to start to take steps to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender, and you should join the fight today.”