Meet the Scholar Tackling the ERA’s Past, Present, and Future

Professor Julie Suk (Credit: The Graduate Center/Rachel Ramirez)

In January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — a historic event that means the amendment is finally approved in enough states to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Although this is a victory, the decades-long fight to add the ERA to the Constitution isn’t over yet, as Congress had set a 1982 deadline for the amendment’s approval
Dean for Master’s Programs and Professor Julie Suk (Sociology) has spent years studying the history of the ERA and tracking its progress. She shares her expertise in her forthcoming book We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Suk spoke with The Graduate Center about her journey as a scholar of constitutional law and society.
The Graduate Center: What inspired you to begin studying the ERA and make it such a crucial part of your work?
Suk: European countries had amended their constitutions in the 1990s. They added robust gender equality amendments to their constitutions, building on the gender equality clauses that were adopted after World War I and World War II. I started really studying what was going on with these more recent amendments in the European contexts. And I was puzzled by the fact that nobody talked about the ERA anymore. Why don’t we have a sex equality amendment in the U.S. constitution? It’s too bad that we sort of take it for granted in this country that the ERA failed. What happened and why?
GC: Do you have any theories on why it has taken so long to make the ERA part of the Constitution?
Suk: The [U.S.] Constitution makes it hard. It is notoriously one of the hardest constitutions to amend in the world. The kind of amendments that are especially hard are the ones that expand who “we the people” are. Our amendment rule requires a tremendous consensus of the people who are already included. They have to want this. I think part of it is that those who already count sometimes actively try to stop amendments that expand the boundaries of the political community.
GC: You are primarily engaged in scholarship, but you also work to educate advocacy groups, like the ERA Coalition’s Legal Task Force. Why has it been important for you to take action in this way?
Suk: For me, my role as someone who has read everything is not advocacy. It’s more giving scholarly, historical, and legal information to the advocates. I have a body of knowledge advocates can draw on because they need to know law, history, and sociology in order to formulate a position. The Graduate Center has a long history of publicly engaged scholarship. There’s always been a tradition at The Graduate Center of doing scholarship that has relevance to public policy and very important — some might say — revolutionary social and political change. Scholarship can have a direct impact if you share it with those who can use it to develop advocacy positions and strategy. My scholarly article about the ERA was cited by the House Judiciary Committee in its report on removing the deadline for ERA ratification, and then the House voted on February 13, 2020, to remove the deadline.
GC: Sometimes matters of public policy don’t consider the nuance of race dynamics. How can this be addressed with regard to the ERA?
Suk: When the ERA was adopted in 1972, some of the women who were powerful advocates for the ERA were the first women of color who were ever elected to Congress. Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and first Asian American woman [elected to Congress], Shirley Chisholm — a CUNY alumna — was the first African American woman elected to Congress. Both of them played a huge role. They thought about equal rights for women in very, what we would call today, intersectional terms.
GC: You spent years studying the history of the ERA, its relation to other countries and its progress. Why was it important for you to put your wealth of knowledge into a book?
Suk: I realized that everything that I had written for an academic audience I needed to write in an accessible format for non-lawyers, high school teachers, just ordinary citizens, so they could read it and understand the history of not having gender equality in the Constitution and what to do about it.

Professor Julie Suk speaks on the Future of the Equal Rights Amendment on CUNY TV

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Submitted on: MAR 9, 2020

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